Monday, May 11, 2009

In Praise of the Quiet Professional

In a dangerous world, there is a need for the quiet professional. Gen. Victor E. “Gene” Renuart, who heads up both the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), is a loquacious fellow on a personal basis, but he is all business and no bluster when it comes to his job.

Over the course of a week, I was part of a privileged group who accompanied Gen. Renuart on a tour of his operations throughout the United States. Despite its name, USNORTHCOM includes components in the South and East of the country, and our journey took us from the Colorado headquarters to Florida, Virginia, Maryland, and New York. On each stop, we were introduced to personnel in every branch of the military, and given demonstrations on how they guard against threats ranging from cyber attacks to nuclear detonations. These dangers may be extraordinary but, fortunately, so are the folks standing against them.

In his capacity as head of NORAD, Gen. Renuart is equally responsible to Canada’s Defence Minister and Prime Minister as he is to the American Secretary of Defense and President. The foyer of the General’s headquarters features official photos of Stephen Harper and Barack Obama, displayed with equal prominence, eyeing each other from opposite walls. Whatever political or cultural quarrels may exist between the two countries, the working relationship between Canadian and American personnel is seamless – they are all part of the same team.

The issues dealt with by Gen. Renuart and his staff are eclectic and ongoing, involving diplomatic, military and political leaders of both countries. For example, Operation Podium is the mission to protect the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. While overall responsibility for security at the 2010 Olympics resides with the RCMP, NORAD will monitor airspace, backed up by USNORTHCOM aircraft. In this way, U.S. forces normally reserved for protection of that nation’s homeland will help to protect the Canadian skies. This sort of thing requires a tremendous amount of negotiation, consultation and trust.

Consider that in the U.S., all domestic air traffic, whether it is military, commercial or private, is monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In Canada, meanwhile, two separate entities direct military and other aircraft. If, for example, a rogue airplane being chased by American fighters were to fly into Canadian airspace, would the U.S. have to abandon the chase, forcing the Canadian military to pick it up? Remember that in this plausible circumstance, we would have two national governments, three traffic control bodies, at least one renegade aircraft and any number of military planes carrying missiles. It is with good reason that the NORAD and USNORTHCOM folks are planning ahead.

Indeed, during a stopover in Washington, D.C., Gen. Renuart had to break off for a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on just this topic, since the diplomatic implications of such a scenario are huge. He reported back that he was very pleased with the substance of their discussion and the progress being made.

The North American missile defence shield may have moved off the front pages since Prime Minister Paul Martin opted to withhold Canada’s official participation in 2005, but protecting the continent from nuclear attack remains part of Gen. Renuart’s day-to-day. He points out that the shield was designed to guard against an isolated launch from North Korea, rather than a massive onslaught from China or Russia, and he adds unequivocally, “It works.” North Korean targeting systems are notoriously unreliable and, that being the case, any missile headed toward Canada’s populated southern portion could reasonably be considered a threat to the American homeland and would be taken out: “That’s just what would happen.” Oftentimes, political and practical realities diverge. When it comes to missile defence, although Canada’s official policy has not been reversed under Prime Minister Harper, the nation still benefits from the system’s aegis.

The most chilling words one hears at NORAD are, “Operation Noble Eagle.” This is the mission by which wayward aircraft are identified, approached, communicated with, warned and – if ultimately necessary – shot down. This includes hijacked passenger planes that threaten to crash into buildings or populated areas. Comfortingly, this scenario includes multiple layers of contingency and consultation and is drilled repeatedly in order to find alternatives.

For a job like this, in which vigilance is required and crucial decisions must sometimes be made, Gen. Renuart’s staff – Canadians and Americans, military and civilian – are precisely the sort of folks you would want. The General himself possesses the rare ability to see things from other people’s point of view, and he is slow to pass judgment on those with whom he disagrees. He is well-suited to his Canada-U.S. portfolio, pointing out, “I’m three-quarters Canadian,” since three of his grandparents were from above the 49th parallel.

Despite the stars on his uniform and the weight of his command, Gen. Renuart issues no sputtering declarations of his own necessity and the nature of war, in the manner of George C. Scott's "Patton" or Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan Jessop ("You want me on that wall – you NEED me on that wall"). Instead, he understands that in high stakes situations, panic is contagious, but so is calm. That kind of thinking can save lives.

And that is the purpose of this sprawling enterprise – saving lives. Every branch of the military and Coast Guard in two countries works in concert to protect the people of this continent. This is a tough job, and it is being done by remarkable individuals. This is why it is called military “service.” For all the power on display at NORAD and USNORTHCOM, one hears very little about killing or force – rather, these folks have devoted themselves to serving others.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in Canada and the United States.