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 December 2005 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

Military Not the Only Solution To Gaps in Disaster Response

December 2005

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

At a time of tightening budgets and competing priorities for defense and homeland security funds, one of the most contentious issues being debated at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill is whether the Defense Department should take primary responsibility in disaster response and relief operations.

Clearly our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard personnel provided timely and critically needed assistance in this season’s hurricane onslaught. And it must be said military people performed admirably when other national, state and local institutions proved they were not up to the tasks at hand.

As I pointed out in last month’s “President’s Perspective,” it is easy to see why, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, senior officials and policy makers have called for the federal government to make the Defense Department the lead agency for disaster response. Similar discussions are underway in Canada, where the military increasingly is being integrated into emergency preparedness.

When compared to most civilian agencies, the military stands out for its superb organizational skills, and its ability to prepare and execute meticulous plans, while ensuring leaders are held accountable for their performance.

We’ve heard scores of examples of the outstanding efforts by the military services and the National Guard in responding to Katrina, and later, to Rita and Wilma. For Katrina, the nation saw the largest, fastest deployment of military forces for a civil support mission in U.S. history. By September 10, military forces reached their peak at nearly 72,000 — 50,000 National Guardsmen and 22,000 active duty personnel.

During the recent NDIA Expeditionary Warfare Symposium, in Panama City, Fla., Navy Capt. Richard S. Callas painted a most extraordinary picture of the relief operations he conducted as the commanding officer of the USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), an amphibious vessel. The deployment by the military of equipment and specialist personnel in a domestic emergency is often the only way to get necessary relief to distressed citizens, as Callas noted. His ship, for example, was able to provide temporary shelter and medical care to victims of the storm and to displaced first responders.

“It boils down to this: It’s the tactical movement of personnel and equipment,” Callas said. “And that’s exactly what we do, whether it’s putting combat Marines on the beach, or putting the equipment of the amphibious construction battalions on the beach, it’s still the same thing. It’s combat power that’s serious, and no one does it better than us.”

The military should stand proud in the wake of Katrina and those other storms. But we should closely ponder whether the Defense Department should be given the lead role in future natural disasters.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale said that the Pentagon is considering options to improve the training and resources that would be made available in the rare and challenging circumstance of a catastrophic event, such as Katrina. “At this point, we’re looking at the potential for a greater role for the Defense Department, but the definition of that role has not yet been completed,” he said.

McHale stressed, however, that the Defense Department would not assume the lead role — under the National Response Plan — in dealing with disasters that happen routinely, as opposed to Katrina-like catastrophes.

“It is almost inevitable that the Department of Defense will play a very substantial role in providing resources, equipment, command and control, and other capabilities in response to a catastrophic event,” McHale said. “There is no other agency of the United States government that has the ability to marshal such resources and deploy them as quickly as the Department of Defense during a period in which thousands of American lives may be at risk.”

But we must not forget the primary mission of the military. The services are organized, trained and equipped to fight the nation’s wars and to defend our national interests. Any resources diverted from those missions –- whether it’s for disaster relief or other domestic priorities –- could degrade those core military capabilities. Much of the Defense Department’s funding goes to buy hardware – such as smart munitions, aircraft carriers and fighter jets -– that would have no use in disaster relief, but are very much needed to defend the United States from enemy attack. It would be imprudent to consider shifting any resources away from those critical capabilities, especially at a time when the services are stretched thin fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Quadrennial Defense Review, scheduled to be unveiled in February, is expected to addresses the Pentagon’s role in disaster response, such as how it can share with the civilian community some of its capabilities and competencies. The Defense Department, said McHale, also is looking at various proposals to assist civilian agencies in developing WMD response capabilities.

Those are valid points of discussions that the QDR should probe in detail. But a word of warning: Policy makers must avoid setting a course that would foster a reallocation of resources that would undermine our war-fighting ability.

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