Space-based capabilities ‘critical’ to NORAD, USNORTHCOM missions

By Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Whether tracking wildfires in California or missile launches in North Korea, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command count on space-based technologies to conduct their missions, said Gen. Gene Renuart at last week’s 24th National Space Symposium.

“Whether it’s things like search and rescue or threat detection, threat response, communication, disaster response or the hundreds of other day-to-day tasks that NORTHCOM and NORAD undertake, space is critical to us,” said the NORAD and USNORTHCOM commander. “We can’t exist, we can’t conduct our mission, we can’t be successful in our job without a heavy reliance on the capabilities that space brings.”

The military needs to take advantage of technology already in use by the commercial sector, Renuart said.

“There’s huge potential out there, and the commercial industry is rapidly moving forward,” he said. “I fear we in the Defense Department are maybe a little bit behind.”

NORAD, especially, needs to modernize its aerospace warning and control technology, Renuart said.

“We can’t afford to continue to invest in the fixed sites [from] the early days of the Cold War that we have continued to keep on line at high cost,” he said. “We have to find new and better ways – cheaper ways, more integrated ways – to have the same situational awareness, the same kind of accuracy of decision-quality information to provide our national leadership.”

In addition to its missions of aerospace warning and control, NORAD also has a relatively new maritime warning mission. The command already has methods in place to locate and track objects in space, in the air and on the ground. “We’ve got to expand that now to find ways to increase our situational awareness of vessels on the ocean of our nation,” Renuart said. Of special interest, he added, are small vessels and submersibles often used by drug traffickers.

It’s only a matter of time, Renuart continued, until another large-scale natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina strikes the United States mainland, and the Department of Defense is requested to provide support of civil authorities. In 2007, USNORTHCOM planned to evacuate 300,000 people when Hurricane Dean threatened the eastern coast of Texas. In such situations, he said, space-based capabilities are essential.

“You’ve got to make a determination early, you’ve got to have the infrastructure to move [people], you’ve got to have accountability of the people you’re moving, and you’ve got to be able to do that very quickly.”

Just like a driver in the family car, NORAD and USNORTHCOM use Global Positioning System technology to map and locate areas and addresses. USNORTHCOM also uses the information to coordinate civil support personnel and resources with civilian first responders. Renuart said he wants to be able to use space-based sensors to provide information to civilian authorities, whether by detecting flooding rates or tracking the spread of wildfires.

“I want to be able to use infrared sensors to find hot spots on fires, much like we did with some success in the wildfires of southern California this past fall,” Renuart said. “I need it to be able to tie together to unclassified users, so that the fire chief out there running the line, or the local search and resuce in the streets of New Orleans that are under water, can find safe ground, can find the right fire, can position their resources to respond to the citizens of our nation.”

NORAD, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in May, is the bi-national Canadian and American command responsible for the air defense of North America and maritime warning for Canada and the United States.

U.S. Northern Command was established on Oct. 1, 2002, to anticipate and conduct homeland defense and civil support operations within the assigned area of responsibility to defend, protect, and secure the United States and its interests.