USNORTHCOM chief stresses disaster preparedness

By Jim Garamone

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The United States must do more to prepare for natural disasters on the scale of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and more cooperation is necessary to combat transnational criminal organizations, the commander of U.S. Northern Command said here yesterday.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld stressed his command’s role in preparing for manmade or natural disasters.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of northern Japan caused a tsunami that inundated many areas of the country. The quake also triggered failures in the Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant.

“The tragic events in Japan over the last several weeks highlight the importance of being prepared to respond to disasters, including those providing little or no notice, such as earthquakes, and those involving accidental or intentional release of harmful substances, as in Japan's case, the release of radionuclides,” Winnefeld said.

USNORTHCOM, which has responsibility for the United States, Canada and Mexico, is a key player in America’s response to natural or manmade disasters. Generally, the command works in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and stands ready to provide capabilities needed in the event of an emergency.

“Time is our enemy in these disasters and we search every day for ways to become more agile to meet the needs of our partners,” the admiral said.

The command, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., works with interagency partners to ensure all have the same playbook, Winnefeld said. In the last year, he added, he has been working to achieve unity of command and control over state and federal military forces that might respond together in the wake of a disaster.

“I can also report that [Northern Command’s] relationship with the National Guard, who is such a capable partner and on whom I rely so much for my mission accomplishment in several key areas, is superb,” he said.

The command is responsible for defending the United States against terrorism and transnational criminal organizations. Winnefeld also serves as the commander of the joint U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command.

USNORTHCOM works closely with U.S. Southern Command to counter groups that deal in drugs, people, weapons and money, the admiral said. In Mexico alone, he told the House panel, these criminal groups have killed more than 35,000 people since December 2006.

“We work with law enforcement agencies within the United States and in conjunction with U.S. Southern Command in support of the efforts of our partner nations in the hemisphere,” he said.

President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon have called the relationship a true partnership. The United States has a responsibility to reduce drug consumption and the illicit flow of arms and money to Mexico, and Mexican authorities have the responsibility to interdict drugs going north and to strengthen the rule of law so that criminals are put and kept in jail, Winnefeld said.

“The Mexican government has displayed exemplary moral, physical and political courage in undertaking this important struggle, … because they know this is about the future of Mexico, and I take my hat off to them for this,” the admiral said. “The Mexican military has been asked by its civilian leadership to join with Mexican law enforcement agencies to support this struggle in the right way, respectful of Mexico’s democratic ideals and the nation’s commitment to the rule of law.”

The Mexican military is working to counter a sophisticated, unconventional threat by integrating intelligence and operations, Winnefeld said. The Mexican army and navy are working together and with interagency partners.

“We know this is hard, because we’ve been down the same road, and in some ways, we’re still on the same road,” he said. “So I tell my capable Mexican partners that we don’t know it all, we’ve made our own mistakes along the way, and we seek the kind of engagement that helps them benefit from our experience.”

Regardless of the desire to help, the admiral stressed, any aid the U.S. military may offer is only provided at the request of Mexican officials.

“We have much to offer, but Mexico is always, always in the lead in Mexico,” he said. “The Mexican government has a strategy. They’ve defined with us a substantive framework to guide our cooperation and they’ve invited us to work with them to support their efforts. But again, they’re always in the lead in their country.”