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Military ponders disaster response unit

From Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau

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Disasters (General)
Northern Command

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Northern Command is considering establishing a new military unit capable of quick response to major natural disasters, like hurricanes, floods or earthquakes, according to NorthCom officials familiar with the internal discussions about the concept.

NorthCom's commander, Adm. Timothy Keating, has asked his senior staff to develop ideas on how such a force might be established, the officials said.

Keating considers it a major priority after Hurricane Katrina to find ways the active duty military could respond faster in a crisis, they said.

There is particular concern that the military be prepared to respond quickly during this hurricane season in case another major storm arrives.

One official said the force could be as large as a brigade, or about 4,000 troops. The unit's expertise would include communications, logistics, medicine and engineering.

The plan is being described as analogous to contingency combat forces, like the Ready Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which is always on standby to deploy within 18 hours.

The Pentagon is not prepared to comment since the idea has not yet reached the formal stage or been presented to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The New York Times reported the initial details Tuesday.

President Bush has said that he would like Congress to consider a larger role for the military during massive national disasters. (Full story)

NorthCom, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has direct responsibility for providing plans, offering guidance and overseeing military operations related to homeland security inside the United States.

Also under consideration is how the military would operate in the case of a pandemic, like bird flu, a senior military official told CNN.

Senior NorthCom military commanders have been told in recent weeks to start developing operational concepts, a major task being the airlift of military and medical assets, the official said.

Also under discussion are the protection of troops in contact with the ill, the management of medical facilities and the troop movement.

But recent base closures have reduced some of the military's medical capacity, and war games have shown that it would be overwhelmed during a large pandemic, the official added.

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