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The Military’s Role in Homeland Security
Dr. A.J. Briding, PhD, CEM, CORE, PMP, CHS-V


When homeland security is mentioned, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immediately comes to mind, and rightly so. It was established after the 9/11 attacks expressly to protect our homeland from terrorism and other intentional attacks, while absorbing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its role of protecting us from the consequences of natural and manmade disasters. Only days after 9/11, Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Ridge, was appointed Director of the Office of Homeland Security. The passage of the Homeland Security Act a year later authorized the creation of DHS, and it started operations March 1, 2003 (DHS, 2015).

What is often overlooked is that 9/11 also triggered a very significant change to the Department of Defense (DOD) and its responsibilities for defending America. Prior to 9/11, U.S. geographic combatant commands had been established to control U.S. military operations[1] in areas of responsibility (AORs) around the world. The Pacific and Asia regions were the responsibility of the U.S. Pacific Command; U.S. European Command covered Europe, Russia, West Africa, and the Atlantic region; the U.S. Southern Command was responsible for South and Central America and the Caribbean; and the U.S. Central Command was responsible for the regions associated with the Middle East, East Africa and Southwest Asia, and is currently controlling military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The U.S. Africa Command was established six years after 9/11, divesting the responsibility for Africa from the European and Central Commands and beginning operations in 2007. Those commands covered the globe—but with the purposeful exception of North America, as up until 9/11 the DOD mission had been postured to operate beyond our borders. That changed after the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon were attacked, and new doctrine was created to define a more comprehensive mission set for DOD, which included the homeland defense mission, extending from the far reaches of the world into our nation itself.

The Mission of Homeland Defense

Our military’s mission is succinctly given in the Preamble to the Constitution: to “provide for the common defense.” Since World War II, America has not had a significant military threat to its territory until 9/11. That earned transnational terrorism its ranking as a primary national security threat, and turned DOD attention to using its extensive capability to prevent and mitigate any future attacks as President George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” designation emphasized. Those attacks ushered in combat operations in countries such as Afghanistan that harbored terrorists, and led to the current mission concept for homeland defense, or HD.

Just as homeland security has become the common term used to describe the DHS mission, homeland defense is the specific term used to describe the DOD mission. It is defined as:

The protection of United States sovereignty, territory, domestic population and critical infrastructure against external threats and aggression or other threats as directed by the President (Joint Staff, 2013, pp. GL-8,9).

The remainder of this section continues to draw from Joint Publication 3-27: Homeland Defense as the authoritative source (Joint Staff, 2013). The operational framework behind the HD mission is illustrated in Figure 1. It brings together the full range of capabilities of our military, to include air, land, sea, space, information, and cyberspace.

Figure 1: The Homeland Defense Operational Framework (Joint Staff, 2013, p. I-11)

The HD strategy is to maintain an active, layered defense, starting with the forward regions overseas that harbor transnational terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, then concentrating on the approaches to U.S. territory generally extending from the coastline out to those forward regions, where detection and interception can be conducted to best advantage. If those layers fail, then DOD is prepared to respond within the homeland itself, generally in concert with other federal agencies such as DHS.

In the forward regions, the objective is to detect, deter, prevent, or when necessary, defeat threats to the U.S.. The approaches extend from the limits of the homeland to the forward regions. The primary objective of actions within the approaches is to locate threats as far from the homeland as possible and defeat those threats at a safe distance. . . In the event that defeating threats in forward regions and approaches fails, DOD must be postured to take immediate, decisive action to defend against and defeat the threat in the homeland (Joint Staff, 2013, pp. ix, x).

As this mission clearly points out, DHS is not alone in protecting our homeland from terrorist attack (of course, there are other federal agencies. such as the Department of Justice, Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation that play prime roles as well). Not only can DOD’s exceptional forces and capabilities help defeat the terrorist threat before it reaches our shores, it can also provide those forces in response and recovery operations, should an attack materialize.

The Homeland Defense Players

Several military commands play, and have played, very important roles central to the HD mission.

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)

During the 9/11 attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense Command launched aircraft to patrol the skies over the U.S. (admittedly in a quickly contrived, ad hoc measure), ready to shoot down any more airliners that were displaying hostile intent. NORAD’s mission is aerospace warning and aerospace control for North America and that mission has evolved from the days when NORAD’s command center deep in Cheyenne Mountain was built to track and respond to aircraft and missile penetration of our air defense zones during the Cold War. It is bi-national, with the U.S. and Canada sharing the responsibilities of aerospace defense for the continent. It was the military command with the capabilities in place to launch and direct military interceptor aircraft during 9/11, and that mission of protecting the airspace over the U.S. is now one of its prime responsibilities. Part of the command’s evolution now reflects other current threats, to include tracking aircraft suspected of illegal drug trafficking, and it is developing a maritime warning mission to deepen the defense of North American ports and coastlines (Office of History, 2012).

The US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM)

In concert with the creation of DHS as a direct result of 9/11, another geographic combatant command, the U.S. Northern Command, was established with the military mission to protect the continental U.S., Alaska and our Caribbean territories—the first time a combatant commander since George Washington was given an AOR that included our homeland. That AOR also covers Canada, Mexico and the waters out to 500 nautical miles offshore (U.S. Northern Command, nd); the U.S. Pacific Command is responsible for the defense of Hawaii and our Pacific territories. By 2003, when DHS was just starting up, USNORTHCOM had reached full mission capability. Due to the closely related missions, both NORAD and USNORTHCOM work together from their headquarters in Colorado Springs and share the same commander.

In alignment with the HD mission, USNORTHCOM’s mission is to deter, prevent and defeat threats and aggression aimed at the United States, its territories and interests, acting in cooperation with other federal agencies. It has a second mission component in addition to protecting the approaches, and that can be invoked when events hit the homeland: Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA). DSCA operations must be approved by the President or Secretary of Defense to prevent the misuse of military forces in domestic scenarios.

DSCA can open the door to augmenting civilian capabilities and manpower with all that the military offers: surveillance and reconnaissance, security forces, deployable medical facilities and personnel, communications, civil engineering assets, consequence management for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) events, and air, land and sea transportation, to name some of those military specialties particularly useful in disaster response and recovery. These assets are normally assigned to ongoing military operations, so their use domestically comes at a cost to those operations, and it may take time to assemble and deploy them within the U.S.. That is why the initial military response forces will normally be provided by the National Guard, first from the affected state’s National Guard forces under the governor’s direction, and then augmented by National Guard forces from other states. If civil and National Guard resources are insufficient, then a request can be made to DOD to provide active duty or federalized reserve forces. In almost all anticipated applications of DSCA, USNORTHCOM will be a supporting federal agency, reporting to a civil federal agency for direction to keep military operations under civilian control.

The DSCA mission has been tested more often than the public generally hears about and has delivered impressive support during national disasters. A prime example was the DSCA support provided after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast:

As the storm subsided, USNORTHCOM forces deployed to the region, under the direction of Joint Task Force Katrina commander Lieutenant General Russel Honoré and conducted recovery operations at the request of civil authorities . . . personnel from every branch of the U.S. military participated in the effort which included search and rescue; security assessment, advice, and technical assistance; evacuation; recovery of deceased persons; health and medical support; debris removal; restoration of infrastructure; logistics, including distribution of food, water, and ice; temporary shelter; long-range communications; housing of FEMA officials and relief workers; and provision of geospatial products and evaluations (USNORTHCOM Office of History, 2014, p. 7).

USNORTHCOM’s Joint Task Force Katrina was created to respond to that specific disaster, and disbanded once civil forces were able to maintain the recovery. USNORTHCOM also maintains several standing joint task forces (JTFs) with unique missions that address homeland defense requirements. JTF North works with federal law enforcement agencies to assist in interdiction within the approaches of any terrorism, narco-trafficking, alien smuggling, or CBRN weapons threats. JTF Alaska is responsible for the HD mission within the Alaska area of operations. JTF Civil Support is prepared to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear events. And Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region is poised to provide homeland defense and civil support (consequence management) to defend and secure the immediate areas surrounding our nation’s capital (U.S. Army, nd; USNORTHCOM, nd).

The US Transportation Command

As with USNORTHCOM, the US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) is often behind the scenes and unheralded, providing essential logistics support both for civil agencies responding to disasters and for military forces participating in DSCA. Again looking at the support provided during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, USTRANSCOM moved essential land, sea and air transportation capability into the disaster area, providing services such as airfield recovery and operations, search and rescue, and medical evacuation, while delivering other civil and military response personnel and assets from around the nation. Air Mobility Command (AMC), the Air Force component of USTRANSCOM, immediately deployed helicopters to assist in damage assessment and search and rescue; in the first 10 days after Katrina hit, Air Force helicopter crews rescued 4, 300 people, carrying them to safe havens. Other AMC aircraft transported 44,000 Joint Task Force Katrina personnel and 11,450 tons of equipment and supplies into the region, while taking out 2,600 medical patients and 27,000 evacuees (Haulman, 2006). It should be noted that all of this support for Joint Task Force Katrina took place at the same time combat operations were ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Final Thoughts

It can be comforting to realize that DOD underwrites our homeland security, but our military’s primary mission is to conduct operations abroad, leaving domestic operations properly in the hands of our federal, state, regional, tribal and local entities, as the framers of the Constitution intended. I only briefly mentioned the role of the National Guard, as this topic is worthy of an article in itself. As mentioned in my introductory article for this National Security Perspectives column, national security and homeland security are not separate and distinct; rather, they are parts of a continuum that often overlap, and the layered defense strategy behind the homeland defense mission illustrates that well. The litmus test for successful operations lies in effective interagency coordination, and that can be a very challenging and complicated task, a discussion perhaps left to yet another article down the road.


  • Department of Homeland Security (2015). “Creation of the Department of Homeland Security.” Washington D. C.: Department of Homeland Security, September 24, 2015. Retrieved from www.dhs.gov.
  • Haulman, D. (2006). “The US Air Force Response to Hurricane Katrina.” Maxwell Air Force Base: Air Force Historical Research Agency. Retrieved from www.afhra.af.mil.
  • Joint Staff (2013). Joint Publication 3-27: Homeland Defense. Department of Defense, July 29, 2013. Retrieved from www.dtic.mil.
  • Office of History (2012). “A brief history of NORAD.” North American Aerospace Defense Command. Retrieved from www.norad.mil.
  • North American Aerospace Defense Command (nd). “About NORAD.” Retrieved from www.norad.mil.
  • U.S. Army Military District of Washington (nd). “About Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region.” Retrieved February 14, 2016 from www.mdwhome.army.mil/about-jfhq-ncr-main/about-jfhq-ncr.
  • U.S. Northern Command (2014). “A Short History of United States Northern Command.” US Northern Command Office of History. Retrieved from www.northcom.mil.
  • U.S. Northern Command (nd). "About USNORTHCOM." Retrieved February 14, 2016 from www.northcom.mil/aboutUSNORTHCOM.aspx.

[1] I use the phrase ‘military operations’ to cover the full range of military operations (ROMO), including military nation-to-nation engagement and training, security cooperation, and deterrence; crisis response and limited contingencies to include foreign humanitarian assistance, noncombatant evacuations, peace enforcement, and limited strikes; and major operations and campaigns, such as continuing operations in the Middle East.

About The Author

Dr. A.J. Briding, PhD, CEM, CORE, PMP, CHS-V, has been involved in emergency management and military operations for over 40 years. He holds the CHS-V, Certified Emergency Manager (CEM), and Certified Organizational Resilience Executive (CORE) certifications, and is a Project Management Professional (PMP). He holds a Doctorate degree is in Public Policy and Administration, with a concentration in homeland security policy and coordination; he also holds a Master’s degree in Laser Engineering. He teaches courses on intercultural competence for the Air Force, and The Impact of National Cultures on Resilience Programs for the International Consortium for Organizational Resilience (ICOR) online.

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