After decades of projecting force overseas, the Pentagon for the first time has placed the continental United States under an American military command a step that underscores how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are reconfiguring the US defense posture.
In what senior US officials call the most important change of its kind since World War II, the Pentagon created a new unified command, Northern Command, granting a four-star general responsibility for land, aerospace, and sea defenses of the United States.
The entity "will command US forces that operate in the US in support of civil authorities" in the case of "natural disasters, attacks on US soil, or other civil difficulties," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday.
The overhauled structure also places previously unassigned parts of the globe including Russia, Canada, Mexico, and Antarctica under US military commands for the first time. As a result, the entire world is divvied up among American commands for the first time.
"Today our country faces an era of the unexpected," Rumsfeld said, warning of "the spread of weapons of increasing range and power into the hands of the worlds most irresponsible regimes."
"We as a country have to be ready to defend against or, if possible, prevent even worse attacks in the days ahead," he said, referring to the strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials denied that the new command would violate US laws prohibiting the military from performing domestic police functions. "The Pentagon is not in the business of providing an armed force for the United States," he said.
Still, defense analysts expressed concern that those roles could become blurred in a crisis.
"To me the main problem is that you will get deadly screw ups," says Marcus Corbin of the Center for Defense Information. "Any time you have active military forces appropriately trained to use maximum force ... and mix them with US citizens in domestic situations, you are going to get ... accidents under stress of a confrontation, or the chaos of an emergency response."