William Arkin – NEWSWEEK April 16, 2020
The 106th Aviation Battalion prepares to leave for Washington DC on March 12, 2020. Click to enlarge
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser yesterday ordered a one-month extension of the state of emergency, as cases in the region grow at a rapid pace. Federal officials in the nation’s capital expect a New York-like epidemic in the District, Maryland and Virginia, one that could potentially cripple the government.
“No one wants to talk evacuation, especially when there’s nowhere to go,” says a senior military officer working on continuity of government planning; he requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the record.
But a little-known military task force charged with evacuating Washington has already been activated, a task force charged with the most sensitive government mission of “securing” Washington in the face of attackers, foreign and domestic—and if necessary, moving White House and other key government offices to alternate locations.
Activated on March 16, Joint Task Force National Capital Region (JTF-NCR) is chartered to “defend” Washington on land, in the air, and even on its waterfronts. The special task force, the only one of its kind in the country, demonstrates how there are two sides of government preparedness. The public face, and even the day-to-day work of most men and women assigned to JTF-NCR, is the same as it is everywhere else in the country—medical support, delivering supplies, manning health-check stations.
But behind the scenes, JTF-NCR is responsible for what the military calls “homeland defense”: what to do in the face of an armed attack on the United States, everything from guarding Washington’s skies to preparing for the civil unrest that could occur if a nuclear weapon were detonated in the capital. But most immediate, JTF-NCR is charged with facilitating continuity of government, particularly moving civil and military leaders to secret locations were the order given to evacuate the city.
Ever since National Guards started to activate countrywide, Pentagon officials have insisted that men and women in uniform are not conducting secret missions and that they will not administer or enforce “stay at home” quarantines. The Pentagon has also rejected reports, including articles in Newsweek, about martial law or other extreme contingency plans, arguing that the Guard remains under strict control of state governors, while federal troops support civil agencies like FEMA.
And yet the activation of Joint Task Force National Capital Region, including almost 10,000 uniformed personnel to carry out its special orders, contradicts those assurances. JTF-NCR is not only real and operating, reporting directly to the Secretary of Defense for some of its mission, but some of its units are already on 24/7 alert, specially sequestered on military bases and kept out of coronavirus support duties to ensure their readiness
On March 12, families and friends gathered at a Decatur, Illinois, National Guard armory to say their goodbyes to guardsmen and women who were shipping out.
“This is my first time getting to do something big for my country,” Alycia Thomas, 29, an Army Specialist from Peoria, told the local Herald & Review.
All anyone would say was that two Blackhawk helicopter companies of the 106th Aviation Battalion were headed to Fort Belvoir, in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. There, “something big” was a special assignment in support of Joint Task Force–National Capital Region.
Unlike other Guardsmen activated under “Title 32” orders—under gubernatorial control but paid for by the federal government—the soldiers of the 106th were activated under “Title 10” orders, strict federal duty as if they were going to be shipped off to Afghanistan or Iraq. Except that in this case, the battlefield is Washington, DC.
On that battlefield, the Illinois 106th Aviation Battalion’s helicopters would be used to evacuate everyone from Army leaders to the White House.
“We are that quick reaction force that allows us to help mobilize forces within the Washington DC area, evacuate people, or whatever that might be,” says Cpt. Adam Kowalski of the Illinois Guard. “We’re kind of like that big taxicab that makes sure everybody gets where they need to be and keeps the government going.”
He and his fellow officers have been studying the Joint Emergency Evacuation Plan (JEEP), the national plan to move Defense Department officials to alternative locations outside the Washington area. JEEP is not the only plan. It is supplemented by Atlas as well, which designates the procedures for the movement of civilian leaders, called “Enduring Constitutional Government,” ensuring the survival of the legislature and the judiciary. And above JEEP and Atlas are the highly classified Octagon, Freejack and Zodiac plans that deal with other emergencies, and the movement of the White House and other presidential successors.
The March 16 order that activated JTF-NCR placed all of this planning under the command of Maj. Gen. Omar J. Jones IV. In “peacetime,” the Army Major General commands the Military District of Washington, an Army unit mostly known mostly for its ceremonial and memorial expertise, providing the soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, the Drum and Fife formations for parades, the grave and precise standard bearers for state funerals. Following post 9/11 organizational changes, Maj. Gen. Jones was also “dual-hatted” as the commander of Joint Forces Headquarters–National Capital Region, an organization created after it became clear that no single command was in charge of immediate response in Washington. There was not even a single military interface with the White House and what’s called “the interagency”, one organization that would be in charge as continuity of government or other disaster plans were implemented.
In peacetime, the Joint Forces Headquarters is merely a coordinator, with each of the military services retaining control of their forces. But once the Joint Task Force is activated, as it has been now, operations and units shift to what the military calls “operational command.” Maj. Gen. Jones is now in charge. He isn’t some martial law commander who takes precedence over any civil authorities, nor is he out in public telling anyone outside his secretive task force what to do. But he is the military man who would be in charge in Washington if civil government broke down.
Gen. Jones’ battlefield is defined in U.S. law as the “National Capital Region,” which includes the District of Columbia; Prince Georges and Montgomery Counties in Maryland; Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William Counties in Virginia; and all cities and towns included within the outer boundaries of that area. The Pentagon plan for the Joint Task Force’s operation says that the NCR houses all three branches of the Federal Government, over 270 federal departments and agencies, an inventory of over 880 government-owned and leased facilities and nearly 300,000 federal workers.
It is perhaps one of the most sensitive jobs in the entire military, dealing with three civil governments, all of whom, including the District of Columbia, have their own National Guards and their own responsibilities. The NCR also houses the White House and its two quasi-military controllers, the White House Military Office and the Secret Service. And it houses the FBI and various other federal police forces such as the U.S. Capital Police, each of which has its own jurisdictions and emergency responsibilities.
Most publicly, JTF-NCR now controls the skies over Washington, DC. The operation is called “Noble Eagle” and is the longest-running operation since 9/11, keeping fighter jets within range of Washington airspace on alert, ready to take off with minutes. Fighter pilots on alert for immediate defense are kept in near-isolation, Bloomberg news reported yesterday.
To practice this failsafe mission, less than a week after the Illinois 106th Battalion was mustered, exercise Falcon Virgo commenced in the skies over El Paso, Texas. Over the next five days, small Cessna planes of the Civil Air Patrol—a volunteer auxiliary of the Air Force—flew evasive missions to test the intercept skills of air defenders assigned to another special unit belonging to the Mississippi National Guard. Single-engine CAP airplanes flew mock terrorist strikes to penetrate restricted airspace, an Army range over Ft. Bliss that was gridded out to simulate the airspace of Washington, DC.
During the exercise, old-fashioned radar operators detected the planes and relayed messages to the Mississippi troops, who were armed with surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting them down. All anyone would say was that Falcon Virgo was preparing the Mississippi Guard “for the upcoming deployment in the nation’s capital.”
A second Falcon Virgo exercise had taken place less a week earlier, this one in Washington DC. On March 11, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) announced that Coast Guard helicopters and Civil Air Patrol planes would be operating in the skies over the nation’s capital. The command said NORAD “routinely conducts exercises with a variety of scenarios, including airspace restriction violations, hijackings and responses to unknown aircraft.”
Another Falcon Virgo exercise was over Washington DC on April 7.
The air defense of the nation’s capital is directed from a 22,000-square-foot, two-story blockhouse called the Joint Air Defense Operations Center, opened at Bolling air force base in southwest Washington. JADOC was built to oversee the 24/7 operation that has secured the skies over the capital since 9/11. The interceptor aircraft and ground surface-to-air missile units like those assigned to the Mississippi National Guard are vigilant and ready to stop any intruder.
Now JADOC has an added function. It operates as the secure headquarters and command center for JTF-NCR.
According to U.S. NORTHCOM, the overall military command responsible for homeland defense and the higher headquarters that Gen. Jones reports to, “JTF-NCR brings appropriate levels of military support to bear in the National Capital Region when authorized by proper authorities or as immediately required to save lives, prevent human suffering or mitigate great property damage.” Three military sources familiar with NORTHCOM planning say the Joint Task Force is currently operating under multiple contingency plans, from specific pandemic response operations through White House-directed continuity plans. The highest level plan, the one written for “homeland defense,” exists in case of an armed attack upon the United States or in other extraordinary circumstances.
“As immediately required to save lives, prevent human suffering or mitigate great property damage,” a senior retired NORTHCOM commander says, reciting JTF-NCR’s orders. “That’s the language that endows the JTF commander to have to act, even if he is not formally directed to. Anyone who says otherwise is playing with the truth.”
In other words, JTF-NCR supports coronavirus response efforts in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia; guards Washington from a terrorist attack; and prepares for the worst, even taking unilateral action to carry out its orders.
To conduct his multiple missions, Maj. Gen. Jones has a force of over 10,000. They are doing everything from watching Washington’s airspace, to standing by for emergency bomb disposal, to staying ready to carry out law enforcement duties should there be a greater catastrophe and need for military intervention.
His largest unit, the 3rd Infantry Regiment, also known as “The Old Guard,” normally supplies the spit-shined guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and conduct the Army’s most public events. But behind the scenes, the 3rd Regiment reverts to its true infantry origins. With activation of the Joint Task Force, the Regiment has been given responsibility to “conduct homeland defense and civil support operations to defend and secure the National Capital Region.”
Beyond the 3rd Regiment, Maj. Gen. Jones can call on a dozen or more specialized units, all allocated for DC area duties under JTF-NCR:
- The Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF), a specialized unit able to provide “swift and robust support” to the White House, U.S. Capitol Police and the Secret Service in the event of a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, or High-yield Explosive incident. Two subordinate initial response forces (IRFs) are assigned approximately 150 personnel each. One IRF is maintained on a constant 24-hour alert, with the second IRF prepared to deploy within 48 hours.
- The Army Special Reaction Team (SRT), a sort of super SWAT team comprised of elements from 289th Military Police Company and 947th Military Police Detachment, infantry of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard); officers from the base-level Directorate of Emergency Services and DC, Maryland and Virginia State Police Departments.
- The Army Aviation Brigade, including the 12th Aviation Battalion, the Army Priority Air Transportation detachment; and the now deployed Illinois National Guard 106th Aviation Battalion. Other helicopter evacuation units include HMX-1, a large Marine Corps unit that provides the “Marine One” helicopter for the President, and the 1st Helicopter Squadron, an Air Force unit at Andrews air force base also chartered with Washington-specific duties.
- A specialized “technical rescue” unit, the 911th Engineer Company, able to conduct urban search and rescue; even burrowing into the rubble of the White House, were it attacked.
To augment the immediate response capabilities of the Special Reaction Team, JTF-NCR has more than 1,000 military police and civilian law enforcement officers under his command, including the largely civilian Pentagon Force Protection Agency. In “peacetime” the role of these various military police organizations is to guard the Pentagon and the various forts and bases dotted around the capital region as well as to provide the protective “details” of bodyguards for Defense officials. Under “wartime” orders, though, they too are tasked to actively help with the implementation of continuity of government. That includes most importantly military police who would accompany over 100 helicopters, vans and limousines that are earmarked to evacuate the designated survivors, each of those individuals now on alert to proceed to their marshalling point of embarkation should the “Continuity of Government Condition” (or COGCON) change.
On March 24, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued “Modification 1” to the general coronavirus response order exempting any military personnel engaged in “presidential support duties” and other secret contingencies of JTF-NCR from complying with no-travel rules.
Two days later, all “Immediate Response Force” and “Contingency Response Force” units of the military were moved to a higher level of alert to preserve their special military readiness. That included quick reaction infantry units from the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and the 101st Airborne Division from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky—units that would normally be rushed to the Middle East in some crisis. But tucked away in that same March 26 order were others assigned to JTF-NCR—including secret special operations units, the so-called “National Mission Force”—units that were directed to sequester in operational facilities and split up into multiple shifts, creating a primary and back-up group that would be available for immediate deployment. In theory the separate groups in theory could avoid infecting the other. JTF-NCR has now been operating for one month under these special orders.
Given how many denials the government has issued regarding these plans, Newsweek made repeated attempts to get official and on-the-record comment for this story. FEMA passed the requests for information about continuity of government conditions to the White House press office, which declined to provide additional information or answer questions, saying that Newsweek was getting into “matters of national security.”
The National Guard Bureau referred questions to the Military District of Washington, whcih then referred the request for comment to the Joint Task Force itself, which referred Newsweek queries directly to NORTHCOM. Queries to the Illinois and Mississippi National Guards went unanswered, though officers in both spoke off-the-record. Newsweek also made repeated attempts to contact Maj. Gen. Jones, including sending personal emails, to comment for this story.
Maj. Gen. Jones gave an interview to “Fort Meade Declassified” on March 17, an official and breezy official podcast about goings on in the Washington area military. There he talked about growing up in Maryland and his job as senior officer responsible for the Washington battlefield. When asked what he was doing in his leisure time, he said that he had just finished reading a book about the riots in Washington, DC in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The name of that book? “A Nation on Fire.”