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 October 2009 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)Preparing for the Future by Remembering the Lessons of 9/11

October 2009

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

Last month, while driving to work Sept. 11, one couldn’t miss the large American Flags that were draped from the top of the three-building complex here in Arlington, Va., where NDIA headquarters is located.

The sight triggers a flood of memories from Sept. 11 2001 — the surprise, shock, uncertainty, anguish over the fate of thousands, worry about the status of missing friends and family, and finally anger and then resolve. Americans became united as never before in the previous 50 years. All had a single focus and purpose — that was somehow to put things right and to make sure it never happened again. As the airports reopened on Friday of that week, and thousands thronged terminals, one had never seen the unity, bonding and unbelievable courtesy displayed by absolutely everyone.

The most dominant initial reaction was surprise. We were unprepared for the attack and early warning systems failed us. And not just individuals were caught unaware, but also caught short were our main institutions of government. One reads in current popular literature that some officials in the Executive Branch at the National Security Council and within the CIA were concerned about a potential attack or attacks on the United States, but it is hard to make the case that even these very few could have imagined the scope of the attack or the vulnerability of the United States. Perhaps Thomas Kean, the co-chair of the 9-11 Commission said it best: This was a "failure of imagination."

And this was not the first time the United States was surprised or came to a major undertaking unprepared.  In World War I, our troops took to the battlefield with only their Springfield rifles. Our warplanes, artillery and tanks were purchased or borrowed from our allies. The United States hadn’t made much of an adjustment prior to World War II, as we entered that war with inferior equipment (our highly vulnerable and out-gunned Stuart and Lee tanks against the German Tigers is only one example). But initial equipment deficiencies paled against the lack of troop training (some troops arriving in North Africa had never fired a rifle) or the selection, grooming and training of American combat leaders (the corps, division, brigade, battalion and company leaders).

And despite the heroics displayed in movies like Patton, American generals and commanders performed poorly in the North African Campaign. We make much of American superiority in logistics, but that too, was sorely deficient initially in those two wars.  True, we pushed lots of material across the ocean, but the coordination, staging and distribution were poorly done. And there were many other shortcomings that contributed to huge battlefield losses of men and materiel. So what was the difference?

One characteristic of Americans is our resilience. We bounce back. We have unbounded confidence in ultimate success. Even late in the game with the clock ticking down, we believe we can pull it out. We never give up and are willing to try almost anything to ensure success. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Americans always get it right after having tried everything else.

David Heyman, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, says two key components of resilience are robustness and adaptability.  Robustness is the ability to absorb a blow with a minimum of impact and adaptability is the ability to react and adjust to unexpected blows.

We have built DHS to address our shortfalls in anticipating threats and to coordinate the planning, equipping, training, exercising and mission execution for homeland defense. But this is job one for every citizen and every business in the security sphere. The events of 9/11 were horrific to be sure, but the next attempted blow could be even worse, given terrorists easy access to technology. America can’t afford to let our guard down and forget, as we have in the past.  We must remain prepared, and vigilant. 

NDIA’s predecessor organization, The Army Ordnance Association, was specifically formed in 1919 to address industry shortcomings in providing requisite technology and systems for the America’s security needs. The method selected was a vigorous and continuing conversation between government and industry on the best way to secure America. That purpose is as relevant today as then. What has changed are the stakes, the threat and a much tougher security environment. Given the consequences, a failure to anticipate and adjust in advance is no longer an option.  We are all responsible in one way or another. Remembering the tragedy of 9/11, and the heroic actions of our first responders and people on the scene, should cause us to rededicate ourselves to prevent anything like this from happening again.  

Please e-mail your comments to lfarrell@ndia.org.

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