July 12, 2011

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
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.