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Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Senator Pryor.

SEN. MARK PRYOR (D-AR): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

General Eberhart, I have a few questions for you. During the Columbia tragedy, what did NORTHCOM, NORAD, STRATCOM -- how did they respond and how did they work together?

GEN. EBERHART: Sir, as soon as we knew that in fact it looked as if we had lost the Columbia, there was a problem with the Columbia, we initiated, with the National Military Command Center, what we call a domestic events conference.

And that domestic event conference is something that grew out of the tragedy of 9/11, where we get all the players, if you will, on a teleconference so that we know what the problem is and what type of solution sets might be available and to try to sort out those very important questions such as who will be in the lead, who will have the lead for this effort. It's proved to be a wonderful vehicle that's served us well as we've worked our way through many different problem sets.

On that conference that day, representatives from Strategic Command, representatives from North American Aerospace Defense Command, and NORTHCOM were all up. I was personally up. And through that conference and through then separate conversations offline it was established that initially NASA was the lead federal agency. Then we switched the lead federal agency from NASA to FEMA, because it was obvious that it was now a consequence management problem, but that NASA would still be supported, because we had to, in fact, secure this wreckage and make sure it didn't constitute a threat to the citizens of this great nation and also so that we could try to put together the accident investigation.

So, in fact, what you had was Strategic Command is in the lead for the accident investigation, supporting the accident investigation, and Northern Command in the lead in supporting FEMA in terms of recovering the debris and safeguarding our citizens. And that's the way it's progressed to this day -- obviously, with policy guidance from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, specifically the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense. And we had teleconferences every day for about a week there as we sorted our way through these problems.

So I think that, one, the mechanism of the domestic event conference, the close friendship and working relationship between the commands and the Office of the Secretary of Defense served us well in the aftermath of that tragedy.

SEN. PRYOR: Yeah, it sounds like y'all work pretty well together. Is there -- are there lessons learned? In other words, can we do it better next time? Did we learn some lessons this time?

GEN. EBERHART: Sir, you know, I'm a believer that if you win 70 to nothing, them all, you can still do something better the next time you get on the field, because whoever you're playing is going to be better. So there's no doubt in my mind that there's things that we can do better. And we, in fact, have an after-action report that we're working our way through now. It's the initial after-action report. It's very detailed. But I think in terms of how we provide capabilities to these agencies, there are a long list of things that we, in fact, can do better, and we're working to do those better in the future.

SEN. PRYOR: Let me ask a sort of follow-up to Senator Allard's questions a minute ago about the National Guard. And maybe you answered this, but what role do you see the National Guard having in homeland security and, more specifically, in NORTHCOM?

SEN. PRYOR: Sir, I would like to say that there are two great teachers, if you will, in terms of homeland defense and homeland security. One goes back to the 1630s, and that's our militia, that's our National Guard. The second is our Coast Guard, back to 1790. They've been doing this since their inception. And we have a lot to learn from both of these great institutions. So when I think of homeland defense, homeland security, first and foremost I default to those organizations because I know they know how to do it.

Of course, the dilemma is, as the secretary has said, do you take the National Guard and relegate it -- that's probably not the right verb, but relegate it to only homeland defense and homeland security missions, or do you keep a broader view but look for ways to focus them better?

And I don't mean better in terms of their not doing it well enough, but so that we can, in fact, leverage them better for homeland security and homeland defense. I think the latter is what we should do, as the assistant secretary has mentioned.

I believe that we have a construct right now in terms of our air defense missions, that, as you well know, are predominantly, almost exclusively conducted by our National Guard. I think that construct can serve as well for sure on the land too, as we look at our quick reaction forces and our rapid reaction forces in the future. Obviously, if we do that, we have to have them so that they're able to react quickly and promptly; 96 hours or a week doesn't get it. I mean, they have to be ready to go in 12 or 24 hours. But I think we can make those kinds of things work. But I'm open to any and all ideas here. I'm convinced we can do it better.

SEN. PRYOR: Well, I'd love to visit with you sometime about what resources you think the National Guard needs to augment and, you know, to assist in the mission and to be able to achieve the mission that it's intended to do.

Secretary McHale, let me ask you, we talked a little bit here about NORTHCOM and, you know, working very closely with Canada. What about Mexico? Is there a reason why Mexico is not in this? And does that mean that we do not perceive any threats coming from the south? Or talk about that.

MR. MCHALE: Senator, if I may, could I comment briefly on the previous question and move to Mexico very expeditiously?

SEN. PRYOR: Sure.

MR. MCHALE: Among the lessons learned with regard to the Columbia tragedy was initially some uncertainty as to the lead federal agency. Immediately following the tragedy, there was an expectation that the Department of Defense might be the lead federal agency. Quickly there was a recognition that that's not the way to approach these issues under the federal response plan. FEMA assumed, very effectively, its lead. We provided support to FEMA. But there was uncertainty in the first few hours.

The military response during Columbia reflected the fact that Title 10 involvement is likely to be modest in terms of domestic engagement. Most of the military support for the recovery effort was led by the National Guard in state status; about a thousand guardsmen were deployed from the various states that were affected, and they did a superb job. But they were under state command and control at state expense. And we, in fact, used about a half a dozen CSTs in Title 32 status as part of the clean-up.

Now -- well, forgive me. I'll move very quickly to your question.

SEN. PRYOR: That's okay. Good.

MR. MCHALE: We are pursuing a close cooperative relationship with the Mexican military where that effort is governed by profound respect for Mexican sensitivities with regard to their national sovereignty. NORAD has provided a bilateral relationship with Canada that goes back many decades. It's a mature military relationship, and the comfort level of that relationship reflects the friendship and professional military cooperation that has existed throughout NORAD's existence.

We hope to achieve an even closer relationship than the one we have had with Mexico in the past, but the pace of pursuing that relationship must be dependent upon the sensitivities on both sides of the relationship. There are appropriate sensitivities in Mexico with regard to the protection of Mexican sovereignty. We are pursuing cooperative military efforts with Mexico, but only at a pace that meets the requirements Mexico brings to the table. And so it is our hope that with regard to the NORTHCOM AOR, in the years ahead we will have a close cooperation between neighbors, both on our northern and southern borders. And we are in fact pursuing that, but with a sensitivity toward the historic concerns that are manifested by the Mexican government and the Mexican people.

SEN. PRYOR: Thank you.

Mr. Chairman.

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