GAO: NORTHCOM Failing In Civil Support Mission

WASHINGTON (Wednesday, April 16) - A bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators today released a pair of GAO reports that pointedly criticize the U.S. Northern Command, charged with protecting the U.S. homeland, for a variety of failures involving planning and coordination.

The reports, requested by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., co-chairmen of the Senate Guard Caucus and members of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense, along with House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., House Guard and Reserve Caucus Co-Chair Gene Taylor, D-Miss., House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Tom Davis, R-Va., and National Security Subcommittee Ranking Member Chris Shays, R-Conn., rap the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) for shortcomings in planning and interoperability.

Specifically, the reports reveal NORTHCOM lacks the ability to: complete plans for homeland and civil support missions, establish equipment or training requirements, judge the readiness of the military to respond to homeland disasters and acts of terror, and for failure to coordinate effectively with state and local officials.

U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), established by the Department of Defense in 2002 to oversee defense of the homeland and to coordinate civil support missions that involve the military, also has failed to move beyond concepts and into truly integrated emergency operational preparedness and response, despite five years of effort, GAO found.

GAO surveyed each of the 54  National Guard State Adjutants General and found less than a fourth were involved in developing and reviewing homeland plans produced by NORTHCOM, despite the fact the National Guard, under the command of their governors, respond to almost all disasters both natural and man-made. NORTHCOM officials only minimally involved the states in the development of major homeland defense and civil support plans and are not familiar with state emergency response plans because they still have not established a thorough process for cooperating and interacting with governors and other state officials. 


GAO found NORTHCOM's relationship with the National Guard Bureau, the chief channel of communications between the State Adjutants General and the Department of Defense, also lacks clarity and a definition of roles and responsibilities. This increases the risk of fragmented and uncoordinated responses to catastrophic events, GAO found.


Although NORTHCOM has completed its own required conceptual plans, GAO could not determine whether supporting plans developed by other Defense Department organizations involved are complete. NORTHCOM also struggles to identify and understand the military’s role in disasters and to monitor readiness of military units for civil missions because benchmarks haven’t been established.


"Northern Command's inability to integrate leadership, planning and operations with some of its most experienced stakeholders has left the DoD unconnected and the National Guard under-equipped, and has sabotaged any real progress toward establishing a tiered, coordinated homeland military response to major emergencies.” Rep. Davis said. “Instead of working with the governors, the National Guard Bureau and the State Adjutants General, Northern Command has held the country's historic first military responders at arm's length.  Northern Command needs to accept its supporting role or get out of the way."


Said Leahy: “The United States Northern Command is supposed to be out in front in the Pentagon’s efforts to support civil authorities in emergencies.  It should be planning and identifying possible equipment shortfalls.  Above all, it should be working closely with state and local communities.  Instead, the command is doing very little of this core activity.  The National Guard, which will carry out the bulk of any domestic response, takes this mission very seriously.  The Guard has built new units and brought in much-needed equipment, working closely with states every day.  These reports underscore the importance of the National Guard Empowerment Act of 2008, which helps sharpen DoD’s focus on the Guard’s vital missions.”


Said Shays: “The active duty military faces a unique cultural challenge in defining its role in domestic emergency response. Clearly, a bias against playing a supporting role to civilian authorities has resulted in large gaps in NORTHCOM’s ability to fulfill its stated mission.  The fact is, governors and their National Guard are and will continue to be our nation’s first domestic military responders. And until they and NORTHCOM can work together more seamlessly, NORTHCOM’s ability to be of assistance in homeland response will continue to face significant challenges.”


Said Thompson: "NORTHCOM's duty is to provide military support to States and the Department of Homeland Security, but it hasn't fully figured out this emergency support mission. Any crack in our emergency preparedness capability today will become a gaping hole in our catastrophic response tomorrow. NORTHCOM must be a shining example of cooperation with state and federal partners, so that when called upon for support, they will be ready to assist. Concept plans sitting on a bookshelf and interagency conference calls don't make up for a lack of operational planning. True readiness is found by practicing like we will have to play in a true disaster."


Said Taylor: "I remain convinced that almost seven years after 9/11, the U.S. Northern Command, as presently structured, serves no real purpose and is a waste of taxpayers' money. The only hope to transform this sham command into a viable asset for the American people would require major changes - starting with the National Guard Empowerment Act and State-National Defense Integration Act of 2008. That measure would clarify the National Guard's central role in homeland defense, improve the process by which Guard units are equipped for civil support missions, and enable states to remain in control of military forces responding to disaster inside their borders. This legislation is vital to ensuring that federal and state governments are prepared for emergencies at home.


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