WASHINGTON, June 16, 2009 – The threats that face the United States are more amorphous today than at any time in history, and the commands responsible for defending North America must maintain vigilance, Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart said here today. “People believe we are getting back to something like normal after Sept. 11,” the commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Command said during a morning briefing to members of the Capitol Hill Club. “I will tell you that that normal will never return.”

NORAD is a joint U.S.-Canadian command charged with early warning of threats. Formed 51 years ago, the command was aimed at defending North America from aerial threats from the Soviet Union. It has morphed into a command looking at threats from the air, space, land and sea.

The threats facing the United States take on many faces: terrorists and terror groups, nation states, drug cartels, uncontrolled immigration and natural and man-made disasters.

“We have to continue to grow our capabilities to ensure that we are prepared to defend the nation, anticipate the threats we may face and then defend the nation from these kinds of actions,” Renuart said.

The enemy seeks to attack the seams and gaps in American defenses, the general said. These seams are between areas – such as the boundary between U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Southern Command; agencies like those between the departments of Defense and Homeland Security; and domains such as space and maritime.

“We have to be prepared to deter those threats and we have to be prepared to defeat them if they materialize,” he said.

The command also has responsibility for missile defense – a capability increasingly in the public eye as North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

“This is a core part of our mission each day,” Renuart said. “We would all agree that [the North Korean] regime is unpredictable at best. It underlines the fact that there are and will continue to be nations out there that look to develop a long-range capability that will hold other countries at risk.”

Iran poses a threat not to the United States directly, but to allies in the Middle East and Europe. “They certainly have an intermediate-range capability today, their long-range ability to strike the U.S. is a few years down the road,” he said.

U.S. Northern Command is tasked with missile defense. The system is very capable against the threats it was designed to counter. “It’s not designed to be a shield against all [intercontinental ballistic missiles],” the general said. “It is designed to meet a threat from a rogue nation like North Korea, and potentially like Iran down the road.”

The system is capable, as testing has shown. “I can say with a high-degree of confidence that it is highly effective in those scenarios,” Renuart said.

It’s important to not create false expectations for the system, as it is still in operational test and development, Renuart said.

“The decision to turn a portion of the system over to the operational commander tasked with defending the homeland was a good one,” he said. The command will continue to work with testing officials to stretch the system.

The drug cartels have developed a distribution system to rival the world’s largest retailers. Some 280-plus cities have been touched by the Sinaloa Cartel, and competition between the drug cartels is increasing, Renuart said. That is causing increased violence and kidnappings along the U.S.-Mexico border, he said.

The possibility exists for terrorists to use the same network to move people, weapons or illicit materiel to hold the United States at risk. Forty-five federal agencies are integral members of U.S. Northern Command and they help plan operations and share intelligence around the government.

The reserve components make up a large portion of the command. Renuart said the decision to increase the budget to train and equip the reserve components has paid off.

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