All eyes on Northcom
Disaster recovery snafus trigger push for homeland security role
It's one of the Pentagon's most influential, forward-looking new commands ? and a media darling to boot ? but so far, the three-year-old U.S. Northern Command has not generated as many IT contracts as some may have hoped.
"Northcom is a big influencer," said Brad Curran, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm in San Antonio. "But it doesn't have much of a budget."
Still, Northcom is likely to grow as a significant source of IT work in coming years because of its prominent, evolving role in the nation's homeland defense and civil support, experts believe.
Northcom's budget is poised to expand in the next several years as a result of calls for it to play a larger role in responding to major disasters, and also because its missions appear to be increasing in size and scope under the Pentagon's long-term strategy document, released in June.
The budget for Northcom's architecture and integration IT unit rose from $32 million in fiscal 2003 to $45 million in fiscal 2005, said Northcom spokesman Sean Kelly.
In fiscal 2006, the unit is slated for $34 million for IT projects, including developing an integrated enterprise architecture with situational awareness across multiple domains; command and control warfighter systems; information-sharing systems; and an enterprise network linked with the Global Information Grid, Kelly said.
Operational, logistics, planning and intelligence units handle some of Northcom's IT work, and the total IT budget is not available, Kelly said. Some of the intelligence-related work is classified, several analysts said.
"I would assume Northcom doesn't have all the infrastructure yet to do all its missions. It will need to bolster capabilities, and IT will be a central part of that," said Chris Silva, vice president of the JSA Partners of Newton, Mass., a consulting firm.
ROOTS IN 9/11
Northcom was established in October 2002 at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., with a mandate to defend U.S. soil from attack and to support civil authorities when needed.
It directly controls only about 1,300 troops and civilian personnel, but it can assume authority over Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and other military units when needed. Its satellite commands include a National Capital Region office in the Military District of Washington and a civil support headquarters at Fort Monroe, Va.
The commander of Northcom also is in charge of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is a command jointly operated by the United States and Canada.
As the first active-duty military unit located within the United States, Northcom has drawn great media interest as the controversial focal point about the role of a standing militia on U.S. soil. Under the nation's tradition, and explicitly under the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, it is unlawful for federal troops to conduct law enforcement within the nation's borders.
Northcom also is the center of attention for its substantial role in fostering cooperation and interoperability between the military services and first responders. Its Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration every year selects promising technologies for joint warfare.
One of the command's IT initiatives, the Joint Protection Enterprise Network, is a network allowing military installations to share information online. Northcom took responsibility for it in 2003. Another is Northcom's InfraLynx communications van, created by the Naval Research Labs, which is used to set up temporary interoperable communications for first responders at disaster scenes.
Following Hurricane Katrina, systems integrator SI International Inc. of Reston, Va., was asked to help strengthen emergency operations at the Northcom Joint Operations Center, but the contract amount was not released.
Major IT contracts awarded by Northcom to date include a five-year deal worth $170 million to Titan Corp. of San Diego in October 2004 for IT infrastructure and operational support and engineering.
"They need the IT to be there to help them with their mission," said spokesman Wil Williams. Titan is now part of L-3 Communications Inc. of New York.
CHANGE IN PLANS
In the last six months, visions of Northcom's missions have been expanding.
President Bush and Northcom Commander Adm. Timothy Keating recently suggested that Northcom take on a broader role as a quick-response unit following major disasters. The talk has been spurred by the widespread view that the federal government did too little to respond to Katrina. Northcom dispatched troops to aid in relief in the days following the disaster.
If Congress OKs those plans, Northcom will need more IT.
"They are going to need to reach out to the states and localities, not just the first responders but the entire communities," Silva said. The command will need databases, communications and logistics support.
"The new missions are lofty and ambitious," said Carmi Levy, senior research analyst with Infotech Research Corp., a private market research firm in London, Ontario. But when it comes to restoring telecommunications and other normal functioning to a community following a massive catastrophe, "Who else can do it but Northcom? I picture it evolving into a facilitating organization," Levy said.
Another source of growth for Northcom is the vision outlined in the Pentagon's report, "Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support," released in June.
The 46-page document describes a strategy of layered defense that includes achieving maximum awareness of threats and intercepting threats at a distance.
IT investments are needed for maritime domain awareness, intercepting weapons of mass destruction, responding to chemical and biological attacks and maintaining continuity of operations, the report said.
The strategy calls for new sensor technologies over sea and land, especially in improving border surveillance. The sensors may be placed in high-altitude platforms, including unmanned aerial vehicles, satellites and aerostats, the report said.
Northcom would integrate and deploy the sensors, including the possibility of blimps flying over the coastlines. And that presumably would require significant new IT dollars, although the report does not specify the amount.
"To accomplish the new sea protection mission, Northcom will have to grow," Silva said. Congress also may look to Northcom to take a lead role in sensor technologies for the borders, possibly even shifting some of the authority for the troubled America's Shield Initiative, now under the Homeland Security Department, he said.
America's Shield is a long-delayed, $2.5 billion initiative to deploy integrated video cameras and other sensors at the borders. Secretary Michael Chertoff is reviewing the project for unspecified reasons.
However, one likely motive for the review is that a precursor program has been bogged down by reports of contract mismanagement and shoddy work. DHS officials did not respond to a request for comment.
"If there is a need for a border defense IT system, the Defense Department is more capable at contracting for that," Silva said.
That sentiment may be fairly widespread. Some of the enthusiasm for Northcom is being generated by the fact that defense and intelligence budgets related to homeland security are rising in pace with DHS' budgets.
"We believe there is a lot of growth in homeland security outside of DHS," said Mark Sauter, chief operating officer of the Chesapeake Innovation Center in Annapolis, Md., a business incubator for small IT companies. "Northcom is something we definitely want to focus on."
Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at email@example.com.