PETERSON-SCHRIEVER GARRISON, Colo. — A North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command watch stander answers the phone while on shift in the NORAD and USNORTHCOM command center, 2013. NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s top priority is defense of the United States and Canada. (Courtesy Photo)
By Master Sgt. John Gordinier, NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs
The command center of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, known as the N2C2, was recently awarded the Air Force District of Washington’s annual U.S. Air Force Service Watch/MAJCOM Command Center Award and they will compete at the Air Force level. The competition was primarily other Combatant Command Joint Operations Centers.
First, many are probably wondering what the N2C2 is and what it does.
In most movies involving a military operation, the audience sees a big room or command center with multiple computers, phones, big-screen displays and lots of military members. That is a close portrayal of the N2C2, but what are they monitoring?
The N2C2 is charged with maintaining a “no-fail” homeland defense mission for the United States and Canada, said Col. Bradley Smith, N2C2 Chief. Since this is a bi-national mission, it is staffed by both U.S. and Canadian militaries.
“On a North American and global scale, we assess, characterize and advise on key decisions required by our senior leaders with regards to our common enemies,” said Royal Canadian Air Force Colonel Alain Dallaire, N2C2 Deputy Chief. “Our mission pertains to all key domains such as air, land, sea, space, aerospace and cyber, as well as in support of our civil authorities. We are the key 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week, 365 days-a-year strategic command and control entity that synchronizes military and civilian efforts in the service of our nations.”
What sets the N2C2 apart from other combatant command centers is the commands’ unique global perspective and ties to the U.S. National Military Command Center, explained Col. Smith. On a daily basis, situations arise that drive global “event conferences” with hundreds of participants on the line. More than 90 percent of the time, the cause for those conferences is detected within the N2C2, and they make the recommendation for a global conference, which is hosted from the Pentagon.
The mission emulates the Commands’ and N2C2’s motto of “We Have the Watch.” However, the mission is only part of the reason the N2C2 was named best in AFDW, the most important part is the people along with their tenacity, flexibility and vested interest in the mission. COVID-19 presented the team with a very challenging dilemma of balancing mission, health and family.
“How we schedule crews to support ‘The Watch’ requirement in a COVID environment while maintaining mission assurance and force health protection has been a major challenge,” said Jeff Compton, N2C2 Crew Operations Scheduling and Special Projects. “Since March, we transitioned from 5 crews with a 6 days on/4 days off rotation, to 6 crews cycling through a 21 to 28-day period of home and on-base sequestration. That combined with a testing regimen to minimize exposure risk and the chance of spreading COVID among crew members.”
The N2C2 has also conducted mission requirements from multiple locations, modified work spaces and implemented mask-wear policies to eliminate face-to-face turnover.
“The N2C2 drove the COVID-19 risk to zero to prevent the spread of the virus across our crews,” Smith said. “If our team was infected with the virus, the commands would face a decision between risk to mission or risk to force health. The mission assurance team sequester efforts prevented our commander from having to make that decision.”
The mission assurance and force health protection measures have been successfully implemented and improved over time, but have only been possible through personal sacrifices made by the N2C2 watch standers.
“A majority of our watch standers have been sequestered from family contact for extended periods over the past 9 months,” said Compton. Most combatant command assignments come with the expectation of some relief from the constant deployments away from family and friends, yet the COVID environment changed that for N2C2 watch standers. While ‘deployed’ just across town, the separation issues are just as real as if deployed half-way across the globe.”
The requirement to move on base for extended periods of time while leaving family behind is a huge challenge, said Royal Canadian Air Force Warrant Officer Rod Colbourne, N2C2 Cyber Domain Chief and Senior Evaluator. While living on base in sequestration, service members can literally see their family home, but cannot go inside. Sequestration and separation is necessary to ensure the virus does not infiltrate our operations.
Senior Master Sgt. Carolina Kewley, N2C2 Senior Enlisted Leader, agreed.
“Our COVID schedule was challenging at first and created stress for all, but our people overcame the pandemic and associated stress through perseverance and understanding how they fit into mission,” she said. “Every change we made to reduce stress in the long term added short term stress, affecting personal and family lives. Our people learned to treat crew sequester like repeated short-term deployments where crew members had to separate from friends and family every month since March.”
While the N2C2 is considered the “Watch” and has borne the brunt of separation from families within the NORAD and USNORTHCOM headquarters, “having the watch” is a broader concept, Smith explained. There are many locally, in our component, region and subordinate headquarters that share the watch and have also sequestered from their families due to unique capabilities.
“We all take homeland defense seriously and it is a team effort,” he said.
The award is a boost and deserved recognition for the N2C2 crew members, supporting divisions, and families, Dallaire said. The N2C2 team has shown tremendous adaptability under the COVID operating environment. The team’s resiliency has been steadfast for almost a year as crews and families have been asked to sacrifice time and personal plans all while dealing with stressors such as childcare and homeschooling.
“We are proud of our team members who have pitched in to help, stepping forward and asking, ‘how can I make the current situation better,’” Smith said. “We cannot control COVID, but within the constraints of our mission assurance, we can find new ways to do business and take care of our teammates. We have tried to create a broader N2C2 family and approached this more like a deployable unit than a headquarters division. Whether it was our single members who found ways to take care of their pets and homes, or our families who overcame challenges of homeschooling children and managing households while sequestered, everyone knew they had a role to play and they did so without hesitation. We thank our team's family members who have shown great understanding during a period of unprecedented upheaval. I could not be more proud of all we have accomplished and this award recognizes the contributions of the entire team.”
“COVID-19 has impacted so much of our daily lives, but it has not slowed the operational challenges the watch standers in our NORAD and USNORTHCOM Command Center encounter every day in defending Canada and the U.S.,” said Major-General (RCAF) Scott Clancy, NORAD Director of Operations. “The dedication and sacrifice of our N2C2 team and their families is the reason we are able to navigate these challenging times. I am immensely proud of the N2C2 team and all they accomplish every day.”
While the N2C2 winning the Command Center Award may have highlighted the additional sacrifices being made by the crews and their families during COVID operations, this team of professionals continues doing what they have done day in and day out since 1958—maintaining Watch over North America—despite any obstacles.