When terrorists struck on U.S. soil on Sept. 11 last year, they exposed a number of weaknesses in America's defenses.
One of them, military experts say, was the lack of a single organization that could coordinate military response in a major-scale domestic emergency.
That gap will soon be filled with a new command, headquartered in Colorado Springs. On Oct. 1, the new Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, will officially be established at Peterson Air Force Base just east of Colorado Springs.
Many questions remain, however, about exactly how the command will carry out its responsibilities. At a recent briefing in the Springs, given by future Northern Command staff, questions outnumbered answers.
"We're under development," was a typical response from Coast Guard Capt. Ned Carroll, named as the new command's deputy chief of staff. "We're in this formative stage."
Outside experts agree that it appears the decision to establish the command came before any substantial planning of exactly what it would do, or how. That's understandable, they say, in the atmosphere created by the terrorist attacks.
"In a perfect, theoretical world, it would have been better to sit back" and plan, said Colin Robinson, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "But after 9/11, it wasn't really that sort of situation."
Despite the many uncertainties, experts appear to agree that the new organization is a good idea.
"It makes sense," said retired Air Force Col. Randy Larsen, director of the Arlington, Va.based ANSER Institute of Homeland Security. When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, "There were about 29 military organizations that showed up, and no one was in charge."
The new command, Larsen said, "is going to improve efficiency of response."
Gain jobs, lose more
While Northern Command will bring an estimated 500 military jobs to Colorado Springs, according to Maj. Barry Venable, more will be lost with the departure of the U.S. Space Command.
The Department of Defense announced in April that the U.S. Space Command, currently stationed at Peterson, will move to Nebraska and merge with the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base. Venable estimated as many as 850 jobs will go to Nebraska.
Gen. Ralph Eberhart, currently in charge of both NORAD and U.S. Space Command, will relinquish his U.S. Space Command leadership and become commander in chief of Northern Command. The organization works separately from the Bush administration's also newly formed Office of Homeland Security headed by Tom Ridge.
NORTHCOM's role will be dual, according to Carroll. In addition to coordinating military involvement in domestic emergencies, it will also be a regional command in charge of defending against attacks on U.S. soil -- ranging from conventional military attacks to terrorism and cyber-warfare.
In the first role, Carroll emphasized that the military would not be taking over current responsibilities from civilian agencies, such as local law enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We're not here to replace, take over, take control," Carroll said.
Rather, when an emergency becomes too much for civilian agencies to tackle, they can ask the Defense Department for help, Carroll said. If the department agrees to take a role, involvement would be coordinated through Northern Command.
Such emergencies could range from natural disasters to large riots or terrorist attacks. Military involvement wouldn't necessary mean troop deployment, Carroll said, but could take the form of assistance with planning, intelligence, communication, transportation or medical aid.
Carroll said he did not yet know how the command will interact with the Bush administration's proposed Department of Homeland Security, because the department has not yet been formed.
"We might have to change our plans" as the department takes shape, Carroll said.
Figuring it out
Robinson says the new command will face a "daunting task" in planning how to communicate with civilian authorities. "NORTHCOM's got to liaison with basically everybody in the phone book."
Larsen says one of his main questions about Northern Command is what the relationships will be between the command and local officials. He also wonders what the command's intelligence role will be, and whether there will be sharing of intelligence between military agencies and civilian authorities.
In terms of the command's more traditional mission -- coordinating military defense of the "homeland" -- questions have also been raised about the fact that the command's area of responsibility includes not only the United States, but also Canada and Mexico, as well as some Caribbean islands.
This has raised sovereignty concerns among some Canadians, Robinson notes. "There are some people in Canada that aren't really happy with this."
Carroll acknowledged that many aspects of the command's defense role are also still unknown -- including what role it will play in the proposed U.S. missile-defense system.
"We started with nothing," Carroll said. "The task of starting from zero is quite large."
Staff members of the new command began training and exercises in August and planned to continue this month, Carroll said.
"Come 1 October, we'll know what our role is," he said.
-- Terje Langeland