Natural Security Blog: Post

A Glimpse of the HA/DR Future

While we were out last week, a few news items big enough to make the Early Bird focused on U.S. military responses to natural disasters.  Both of these issues are continuing to peek into the news this week, and I’m watching to see whether the keep building as the summer rolls along.

First, the Army Corps of Engineers has been taking heat for the past week for its management of the Missouri River, as abnormally high snowmelt from the Rockies topped by mad rainfall are causing record levels of flooding. Secretary Vilsack and a range of members on the Hill are openly questioning Corps policies and calling for hearings. (Note what we learned in last week’s book review of a tome on the 1927 Mississippi River floods: what began as a local disaster, also involving the Army Corps of Engineers, quickly became a national political crisis.)

Second, the AP reported last week that Northern Command is creating a new class of commander trained to oversee disaster response:

The officers, called dual-status commanders, would be able to lead both active-duty and National Guard troops – a power that requires special training and authority because of legal restrictions on the use of the armed forces on U.S. soil…The goal is to have at least one officer in each of the 50 states and in four U.S. territories qualified and ready to be a dual-status commander on a moment's notice, said Adm. James Winnefeld, commander of Northern Command. "So if you have a sudden emergency, earthquake, hurricane, you name it, we want to be able to have a National Guard officer able to command federal forces," Winnefeld said in interview earlier this year.

A New Orleans Times-Picayune opinion piece hailed the move as “a smart and needed change.” This move is focused on smoothing domestic difficulties in the face of disasters. But it raises many of the alarm bells that have been going off in my head for some time now with regard to climate change, given that one of the effects scientists have the greatest agreement on is that we’ll see more severe and frequent natural disasters.

After Japan’s triple crisis this year, my fabulous colleagues Patrick and Brian wrote a policy brief warning policymakers not to cut funding for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) capabilities and training as they consider budget cuts. Instead, they suggested ensuring a place in the budget for assets critical for HA/DR that are required for more traditional missions as well:

U.S. policymakers, military planners and Congressional appropriators should recognize overlapping functions that serve both traditional combat and humanitarian missions and emphasize the development of versatile platforms and the maintenance of adequate force structure to respond to more than one significant disaster at a time. Indeed, the capabilities required for complex disasters, including air and sea lift and CBRN detection and response, are arguably more critical for the military than ever for reasons unrelated to humanitarian assistance.

However, they did not delve into command structures, nor address the difficulties in military activity at home. Northern Command’s change here seems as important as ensuring that the U.S. maintains the assets and training it will need to respond.

Still, I can’t help but have qualms with the notion that a U.S. government living within its means can respond everywhere, every time, just because we happen to have the best capabilities for doing so (assuming we maintain them). Japan coincided with our engagement in Libya, continuing transition in Iraq and fierce fighting in Afghanistan. Talk about stretching resources thin. Of course, the United States government wouldn’t hesitate to come to the aid of one of its most enduring allies. But what if the same scale disaster had struck Cambodia? China? Anywhere in Africa?

That doesn’t even get to the question of what capabilities and missions are best conducted with a military or civilian face (in cases where such things matter). The traditional arguments are well known: the military has the capabilities, training and assets needed to respond globally; civilian agencies do not (which we’ll discuss when CNAS’s forthcoming civilian capacity policy brief drops), but do tend to be better at considering the long-term effects of its actions on stability and development. The civilian versus military response question gained new life in Afghanistan in recent years, with military personnel conducting activities like distributing food aid and assisting in agricultural development. As highlighted in the article on NORTHCOM’s new training, similar tensions can arise between state and federal officials in domestic disasters.

I read NORTHCOM’s change as a major step in recognizing the character of the global environmental change we’re witnessing. But nothing about this pivot is going to be as simple or non-controversial as it seems. And the scary part is that we’re seeing little to no real public discussion on appropriate policy.

National Guard, Climate Change

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