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COVID-19 Doesn't Stop Homeland Defense

The ongoing war against the coronavirus hasn't kept U.S. Northern Command or North American Aerospace Defense Command from defending North America against meddling Russian aircraft or North Korean missile launches, the commands' top officer said.

"Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, as well as our components and regions, are conducting our no-fail mission of defending our homeland," Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy, who commands both organizations, said during a telephone news conference today.

Earlier this month, he said, NORAD forces intercepted two Russian IL-38 aircraft near Alaska. "This is the third time in two months we've intercepted Russian military aircraft in our [air defense identification zone]," the general said.

We are postured to maintain that ability to respond at a moment's notice and have no degradation in our ability to defend the homeland."
Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command

NORAD continues to track and remains ready to respond to North Korean missile activity as well, O'Shaughnessy said. North Korea launched a short-range missile March 29, which was identified by the Japanese coast guard. North Korea also had launched three missiles March 9, and two additional missiles March 21.

Both the Russian aircraft and the North Korean missile launches are considered typical activity, rather than an effort to take advantage of any ill-conceived perception the  U.S. military capability might be diminished due to COVID-19, O'Shaughnessy said. Rather, the general said, he believes Russian activity is part of an ongoing effort to probe and check the U.S. ability to respond.

A military aircraft flies in front of snow-covered mountains.
Snowy Flight
An F- 22 Raptor takes flight as part of Exercise Polar Force 19-4 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, April 2, 2019. Aircraft similar to this F-22 recently intercepted Russian aircraft near Alaska.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Jonathan Valdes Montijo
VIRIN: 190402-F-KM026-1034M

"We just wanted to make it very clear to them — which we did by the way we intercepted them — that there are no vulnerabilities as a result of COVID-19," the general said. "We are postured to maintain that ability to respond at a moment's notice and have no degradation in our ability to defend the homeland."

The same is true of North Korea, he said. "We have seen continuous activity," he told reporters. "It's not necessarily outside of the realm of historical norms, especially given some of the significant dates that have gone by. And so, as always, we're ready to defend the homeland with the ballistic missile capability, defense capability, to be able to respond."

Russian aircraft and North Korean missiles aren't the sole focus, O'Shaughnessy noted.

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"As our commander in chief and secretary of defense have stated, we are at war with COVID-19," he said. "To win this war, which we will, we have approached it as we would any large-scale military campaign, and we're laser-focused, and will remain agile in adjusting our approach to match the circumstances on the ground."

Almost 15,000 active-duty personnel are deployed in response to COVID-19, including nearly 4,500 medical personnel. "As we've expanded our operations to more than a dozen states, we've implemented an adaptive medical concept of operation," O'Shaughnessy said.

Based on lessons learned during operations in New York City, Northcom has developed three medical force employment options that O'Shaughnessy said are "dynamically scalable and tailorable."

Multiple personnel in hospital scrubs confer with each other in a medical facility.
Hospital Ship
Sailors aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort confer in the ship's intensive care unit, April 15, 2020.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Bigley
VIRIN: 200415-N-LL146-1059M

The first, he said, involves embedding Defense Department medical providers directly into civilian hospitals or treatment facilities.

The second involves the department adding modular capability to existing civilian facilities by working within a portion of an existing facility, such as in a wing of a hospital. Third, he said, are DOD-run alternate care facilities, such as at the Javits Center in New York City.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he said, the DOD has changed its operations to align with the needs of local communities.

Initially, he said, the DOD officials believed the department could best serve the nation by acting as a "relief valve" for non-COVID patients, expecting that hospitals would be full and that it could best contribute by taking on the care of non-COVID-19 patients so local hospitals could focus on those affected by the coronavirus. But as the situation unfolded, he said, that changed.

Hands in purple gloves adjust medical equipment on a patient’s arm.
Pulse Check
A Navy health care provider adjusts a COVID-19 patient’s pulse oximeter at the Javits New York Medical Station, April 18, 2020.
Photo By: Army Spc. Nathan Hammack
VIRIN: 200418-A-RF914-0034

"It wasn't just the capacity of hospitals, it was literally our health care workers and the staffing of them," he said. The amount of work needed to treat patients, both COVID-19 patients and others, was exhausting civilian health care workers, O'Shaughnessy said, and that's where DOD really stepped up.

"Really, in a matter of days ... of understanding that our plan that was in place was not going to be the most effective, we were able to change," he said.

Those changes included opening up both the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort and the Javits Center to treating COVID patients, as well as putting DOD medical personnel into local hospitals to better support civilian medical personnel.

"Whether defending our homeland or providing much-needed military capability and capacity to win this war against the invisible enemy, know that our commands are responding now and are prepared to respond where they're needed in the future across all 50 states — part of a unified whole-of-America effort, orchestrated by [the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services] and the National Response Coordination Center," O'Shaughnessy said. "This is truly a unified response, and U.S. Northern Command is honored to be part of the team."

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