Military operations are the sole responsibility of the operational chain of command which does not include the Military Departments.  While removing “operations” from the responsibility of the Secretary of the Army for this important purpose, the Committee agrees that each Secretary of a Military Department would retain authority to use military equipment and forces for activities such as disaster relief, response to domestic disturbances, public affairs, the operations of non-combatant forces, and many training activities. Excerpt from Public Law 99-433, 14 April 1986 (Goldwater-Nichols Reorganization Act of 1986).

Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma have brought to the forefront of the national consciousness an aspect of disaster response sometimes recognized only by the immediate victims – namely, the significant role that the U.S. military (active and reserve personnel from all of the nation’s armed services, and from the Army and Air National Guard) plays in responding to and managing the consequences of domestic disasters, both natural and manmade. 

The hearings and investigations about the adequacy of the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) response to this year’s hurricanes undoubtedly will continue for some time, as will the debate about the responsibilities of and possible misjudgments by the state and city officials involved.

By all accounts, though, it seems that the military units and leaders deployed to the Gulf Coast acquitted themselves extremely well. Only time will tell, however, if the comprehensive reviews of the federal response to the hurricanes that already have started will result in the Department of Defense (DOD) assuming an even larger and increasingly proactive role, as some experts have urged, in planning for and responding to future domestic disasters of similar magnitude.

A Duty “to Support and Defend”

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution states that, “Congress shall have power … to provide for calling forth the militia to execute laws of the Union, suppress insurrection, and repel invasions.”  Article IV, Section 4, expands this authority: “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them … against domestic violence.”

The U.S. military serves to support and defend the nation, not only in time of war but also when domestic disasters occur.  From the beginning, the U.S. armed forces, principally the Army, have provided support to civilian authorities when floods, riots, hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, and other disasters, natural or manmade, have required states, or the federal government, to call upon the National Guard and/or other armed services to help.

The basis for military support to civil authorities in times of crisis is codified in the National Security Strategy: “National security emergency preparedness is imperative … a crucial national -security requirement.” Also in the National Military Strategy:  “Terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, illegal drug trafficking, and other threats at home or abroad may exceed the capacity of other agencies and require the use of military forces.”

A Primary Component of Homeland Security

The provision of Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) is a key component of the U.S. homeland-security strategy.  Natural disasters, major accidents, and terrorist threats present a complex and potentially catastrophic threat to the nation.  The continuity of government (COG) element of homeland security requires providing for the continuity and restoration of all levels of government – federal, state, and local. At the federal level, COG ensures the integrity of constitutional authority; at the state and local levels, COG operations can facilitate the quick restoration of civilian authority, and of essential government functions and services.  This can reassure citizens and will minimize the risk that military support for consequence-management activities might be misperceived as an imposition of undue military force.

DSCA cuts across the spectrum of military operations and includes, among other things, active and passive measures taken to protect the area, population, and infrastructure of the United States, its possessions, and territories by: (a) deterring, defending against, and mitigating the effects of threats, disasters, and attacks; (b) supporting civil authorities in crisis- and consequence-management operations; and (c) helping to ensure the availability, integrity, survivability, and adequacy of critical national assets.

Homeland security is enhanced through the military’s rapid, effective, and often extensive response in support of civil authorities.  DSCA enhances the nation’s force-projection capabilities by employing military occupational specialties and equipment in real world missions.

Domestic Military Support in U.S. History

When the framers met in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the U.S. Constitution, insurrection was a major concern.  For the government to remain viable, it was deemed necessary that mechanisms be established to suppress rebellions or insurrections and enforce law. The so-called Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 and the later Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 validated the need and set the stage for the fundamental principles guiding the use of the military to support civil authority.

Current interagency responsibilities in this area were established by Executive Orders that created the Federal Emergency Management Agency, assigned considerable authority to the agency’s director, identified the agency’s COG responsibilities, and transferred to FEMA certain missions previously under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Army and the Army’s chief of staff. 

One of the principal missions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is to provide assistance to civil authorities, when natural disasters or other emergencies occur, but only when the following guidelines are followed:

  • Emergency preparedness and response is primarily a state and local responsibility. However, in instances when the nature of the disaster exceeds the capabilities of state and local authorities, the USACE may provide help to save human life, prevent immediate human suffering, or mitigate property damage (under separate authority – Public Law 84-99).
  • The Corps gives emergency assistance top priority and provides immediate response, using every resource and expedited procedure available to it. Assistance is limited to the preservation of life and protection of residential and commercial developments, including public and private facilities that provide public services.  Exclusive assistance to individual homeowners and businesses, including agricultural businesses, is not authorized. However, during periods of extreme drought, such assistance may be provided to farmers and ranchers under certain circumstances. Under certain conditions, rehabilitation assistance also may be available for eligible flood-control structures.
  • Because USACE is divided by drainage basins into regional divisions, and by smaller drainage basins into districts, it can provide an immediate response to disasters in almost any area of the country.  USACE personnel are assigned to various field offices scattered throughout each district.  During disasters, therefore, USACE personnel in any locale may be quickly mobilized to assist in response and recovery work.

Emergency operations managers have been appointed to each division and district to carry out all emergency actions. Each is responsible for maintaining an emergency organization of trained specialists. Of perhaps greater importance, however, is the fact that each district has a single point of contact for all emergency activities.

Civilian Control of the Military

As with all military operations, final decision-making authority rests with civilian leaders.  When and how best to provide military support is a critical issue facing the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense (DOD), which adheres to the following policy principles in acting on requests for military support:

  1. Absolute and public accountability of the officials involved in the oversight of process is required, while also respecting the constitutional principles and civil liberties of the U.S. system of government.
  2. DOD must remain in a supporting role to the lead civilian agencies involved (Domestic Situations: Department of Justice/FBI-crisis and Department of Homeland Security/FEMA-consequence management; Overseas Situations: Department of State).
  3. DOD support should emphasize the military’s natural roles, skills, and structures – e.g., the ability of the armed services to mass mobilize and to provide logistical support.
  4. DOD should not purchase resources that do not directly support its primary warfighting mission.

The Military Support Process

The President and the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) establish priorities and determine what DOD resources will be made available for domestic support.  Commanders ensure that DOD resources are used judiciously by adhering to the following principles:

  • Civil resources are applied first in meeting the requirements of civil authorities.
  • DOD resources are provided when response or recovery requirements are beyond the capabilities of civil authorities (usually as determined by DHS/FEMA, but an exception can be made when goods or services cannot be provided as conveniently or cheaply by a commercial enterprise, and is in the best interest of the U.S. government).
  • DOD specialized capabilities (e.g., airlift and reconnaissance) must be used efficiently.
  • Military forces remain under military command and control under the authority of the SecDef or DOD Executive Agent at all times.
  • The DOD units involved do not perform any function of civil government unless absolutely necessary – and then only on a temporary basis, under conditions of Immediate Response.
  • Unless otherwise directed by the SecDef, military missions will have priority over DSCA missions.

Other Factors in the Equation

Following are some additional factors that affect how DOD provides support for domestic operations in times of crisis:

  1. When a disaster occurs, local authorities (for example, city fire fighters and police) are almost always the first to respond. However, if the magnitude of the disaster exceeds the capabilities of local authorities, the state government also responds. A significant share of the state’s response capabilities are provided by that state’s own National Guard forces, which operate under the governor’s control and at the direction of The Adjutant General (TAG) of that state. Most National Guard units have enormous capabilities they can use in responding to disasters.
  2. Almost all of the disasters and emergencies that occur in the United States are handled by the state in which the disaster occurs, and therefore do not require federal assistance. However, under what are called Emergency Management Assistance Compacts, over 50,000 personnel (mostly National Guard) from all 50 states and the District of Columbia deployed to the states along the Gulf Coast to help those states deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
  3. DOD involvement in disaster relief usually begins with a presidential declaration, which is issued after a request has been received from the governor of a state. Here there also are some exceptions.  Even prior to a presidential declaration, for example, FEMA can request, and has requested, the pre-deployment of certain personnel and some critical supplies. In addition, when the Secretary of Homeland Security declares an Incident of National Significance, DOD and other federal departments may be asked to deploy. Finally, even without a presidential emergency or disaster declaration, the president can direct the Department of Defense to commit resources for a period not to exceed 10 days.
  4. For operational purposes, DHS/FEMA designates a Principal Federal Official or Federal Coordinating Officer to coordinate the on-scene federal effort at a Joint Field Office. In addition, DOD may issue an Execute Order, at the direction of the SecDef, designating the supported Combatant Command (usually the U.S. Northern Command), establishing necessary supporting DOD commands, services, and agencies for the mission, and requiring the combatant commander to appoint a Defense Coordinating Officer (DCO), who will be directed to coordinate all of the DOD support provided. If the severity of the disaster warrants, a Joint Task Force also may be established. 
  5. There are usually five phases of a typical DSCA operation: Phase I: Pre-deployment; Phase II: Deployment; Phase III: Support to civil authorities; Phase IV: Transition to other federal agencies; and Phase V: Redeployment.

The Function of Base Support Installations

There will generally be at least one Base Support Installation (BSI) used in each disaster for which military support is provided. A BSI is a military installation of any service or defense agency – in close proximity to an actual or projected disaster area – that has been designated to provide interservice (joint) administrative and logistical support to DOD forces deployed in the area. Federal military and civil assets may be positioned at or near the BSI. 

USNORTHCOM designates the BSIs, working in coordination with the military services.  Selection is based on, among other factors, the base’s geographic proximity to an operation and its functional capabilities.

Although specific support requirements will vary widely, depending upon the nature and scope of the domestic emergency, BSIs may be tasked to provide or coordinate for a long list of supplies and services for units – e.g., a brigade of as many as 2,000 troops (in a worst-case scenario; approximately 600-1,200 in an average scenario) – deployed on a DSCA mission. Among those supplies and services would be: transportation (personnel, as well as buses and trucks); food, water, ammunition, fuel, oil, repair parts, and other consumables; communications equipment (for command and control operations); and large open areas that can be used as bivouac sites where food, laundry, and basic subsistence services (including latrines and showers) would be available.

The BSI also may be directed to provide and/or coordinate emergency medical services, airfield operations for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, the contracting and purchase of supplies and services, the maintenance of essential equipment, the establishment and management of forward assembly areas in or near the disaster site, and even the provision of administrative, logistical, and transportation support for DHS/FEMA civilian Urban Search and Rescue teams (each of which consists of about 60 people plus 60,000 pounds of equipment and four working dogs).

The “Immediate Response” Exception

There are certain crisis situations in which a unique set of circumstances allows military commanders to react immediately, prior to any official declaration of the crisis.  These situations permit what is called an “Immediate Response” mission and allow a DSCA type of reaction to imminently serious conditions that are beyond the operational capabilities of local civil authorities. 

The primary objectives of DOD responses in such situations are to save lives, prevent human suffering, and stop or at least mitigate massive property damage. Once an immediate-response operation has been initiated, though, the installation commander must inform the Office of the Secretary of Defense, through service or command channels, as soon as possible. The installation commander also should record all incremental costs associated with the operation (for potential reimbursement later). For practical purposes it is anticipated that most if not all immediate–response operations will be of relatively short duration – i.e., normally no longer than 72 hours.

To summarize: The United States has a time-tested and important tradition of civilian control of the use of military force – and, as a corollary, there are strict limits on the military activities permitted within the geographic limits of the country. Balancing that valued tradition with the need, at various times, for military support in response to major disasters, including acts or threats of terrorism within the American homeland, requires carefully considered decisions by the president himself and by the senior of officials of the Department of Defense.

The U.S. armed services are uniquely equipped to provide an effective blend of skilled personnel and equipment to support federal, state, and local jurisdictions in times of crisis. For legal, constitutional, and other reasons, though, military resources usually are not and should not be requested until federal, state, and local agencies have exhausted their own resources and the crisis remains resolved.

As the nation and the world continue to move into the 21st Century, the topic of federal response to international terrorism will continue to be a dynamic issue affecting all Americans. However, given the nature of the potential threats and likely military missions involved in fighting the Global War on Terrorism it seems unlikely that even the most thorough preparations can cover all possible scenarios.

For that reason alone, it is essential that adequate response measures be taken at the outset of a disaster, natural or manmade, both to minimize casualties and to prevent unnecessary damage to property. A broad spectrum of consequence-management programs and processes also must be in place that will provide the capabilities for local, state, and federal authorities to respond immediately and effectively. Existing local, state, and national response systems provide a solid foundation for which DOD can provide additional, and frequently essential, support.

The U.S. armed services can and will continue to provide reliable and responsive support to civil authorities – under the clearly defined guidelines mandated by the nation’s elected leaders. The military’s extensive experience in supporting civil authorities during peacetime disasters, in national-security emergencies, and for special events enhances the security of the U.S. homeland – and has kept the nation’s military in the forefront of domestic disaster response.

Current force-projection plans require the ability to respond quickly and decisively to events, anywhere in the world, threatening the interests of the United States and its citizens. In the Age of Terrorism it seems increasingly probable that those events may well occur within the homeland of the United States itself. 

Robert Fitton

Robert Fitton

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