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News | Sept. 15, 2010

NORAD, USNORTHCOM commander speaks to Defense Writers Group

By Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command commander, spoke to more than 20 members of the Defense Writers Group Sept. 9 in Washington, D.C.

The Defense Writers Group is an assemblage of the nation's leading national security reporters who gather for regular breakfast briefings with top military commanders, international security officials, diplomats, legislators and other experts.

Winnefeld took the opportunity to further educate the media on NORAD and USNORTHCOM missions and issues currently facing the command including the aging fighter fleet, the use of remote-piloted vehicles in U.S. airspace, the Arctic and Mexico.

Much of the session focused on the Air Force and Air National Guard's aging fleet of F-16 fighters, which NORAD uses for air defense. Winnefeld said he's monitoring the situation closely but is confident the fighters will serve well until they can be replaced.

"Before I even inherited the job, I talked to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force," Winnefeld said. "And he gave me some assurances that the Air Force takes this mission very seriously and that they're going to make sure that there are adequate airplanes to fly so while I'’m watchful, this is a very important mission to the country, and I'm pretty confident that we're going to have the airplanes that we need to do it."

"This nation has a lot of fighter capacity," he added. "And even though we’ve gone down in size, the Air Force is coming down in its fighter airplanes, there is really nothing more important to us than defending our homeland so I'm quite confident that we'll have the airplanes that we need."

Winnefeld noted in response to a question that remote-piloted vehicles were not suited to the air defense mission but that they did have their uses in other arenas. He said the commands were working with the Federal Aviation Administration to expand the use of the aircraft within U.S. airspace, particularly in areas such as the U.S. border with Mexico.

"I share the FAA's goal that air space operations in the United States be conducted safely," he said. "There's no question that we have to be able to do that and I absolutely agree with them in their absolute determination that we be able to have the National Airspace System be a safe place to fly. At the same time, we have some pretty important needs that involve flying unmanned aerial vehicles around in various parts of the country. We can't move quickly enough for me to solve this problem, because there's going to be more of a demand to fly unmanned aerial systems within our airspace, and it impacts us."

In regards to the Arctic, Winnefeld said the commands must look ahead as the Arctic waterways open up in response to global warming by developing the capabilities and partnerships needed to function in that harsh environment.

"I think that some people have the impression that suddenly all the ice is melted and there's an enormous amount of traffic flowing back and forth across the Arctic and that's just not the case right now," he said. "But it will be opening more and more as the ice starts to melt, so it's wise for us to look ahead to that, rather than react to it when it happens. We're doing that in terms of crafting the kinds of capabilities we're going to need in order to be able to function effectively in the Arctic and to do it in a cooperative manner with our partners up there so that the Arctic is opened up peacefully."

Winnefeld said partnerships with other nations with interests in the area, particularly Canada, will be vital when working in the Arctic.

"I think the cooperation is exceptionally good, and there is a community of nations that cooperate together in the Arctic, the nations that border the Arctic," he said. "I think there's pretty good cooperation, frankly, among them. There's no alliance or anything like that, but it's a collegial relationship."

In regards to the violence in Mexico, Winnefeld hailed Mexican President Felipe Calderon's administration as "courageous" for their efforts against the drug cartels and told reporters that USNORTHCOM is working with the Mexican government where appropriate and when they request it.

"I work closely with my counterparts down there, the commander of their army and air force and also the commander of their navy, in trying to help provide capability to do shared experiences, subject matter expert exchanges and some training here and there," he explained.

The Admiral said USNORTHCOM is also assisting on the technical side, providing the Mexican government with technology that will aid them in detecting contraband.

"Under the Merida Initiative, there are technical capabilities we're giving them," he said. "We're providing helicopters, we provide night vision devices, ion scanners so that they might be able to detect drugs or weapons coming across the border, that sort of thing. So, yes, there are very definitely technical things that we are doing and can continue to do to help them."