Time To Clarify Military Roles In Disaster Relief Here At Home

By:  Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Kit Bond

Never the squeaky wheel, but ever ready in an emergency, the National Guard too often is easy to take for granted. 

But when cities flood, hillsides are engulfed in flame, storms lash our communities, or terrorism strikes, the Guard is promptly on the scene, saving lives and restoring order.

The military side of our preparedness grid is in better shape than it was in the late-summer of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.  National Guard units from across the country streamed in to New Orleans and other affected area -- a beacon light amid the darkness of devastation.  Federal agencies, unfortunately, were slow to respond, and it took longer than necessary for other military units to arrive.  Katrina was something of a wake-up call.

The Department of Defense has made progress since then, but the Pentagon remains far from being optimally structured to respond.  There is a lack of clarity about how the military is supposed to work in various likely-to-occur situations.  Confusion reigns over roles and responsibilities within the Department of Defense, and if it is not resolved effectively and soon, it will affect the quality of the military’s response.  We cannot wait for these issues to resolve themselves; the next large-scale disaster could come any day.  Guided by some basic principles, Congress has the responsibility to step forward to delineate clear lines of control and budgeting procedures for this vital mission.  

The Department of Defense must uphold the paramount principle that the active military does not, and should not, have the lead in responding to domestic disasters.  Our Constitution provides for state sovereignty, and myriad laws like the Stafford Act underscore the precept our nation’s governors are the primary responsible officials.  The role of the federal government, including the military, is to provide assistance, and assistance does not include taking unwarranted control.

In various disaster situations, however, we have observed unnecessary tension between governors in charge of relief efforts, and United States Northern Command -- the military headquarters in Colorado Springs in charge of coordinating the federal military response.  We have also seen efforts to make it easier for the President to take control of the National Guard and use it and the entire military for law enforcement.  Congress recently repealed these inadvisable changes to a law called the Insurrection Act, but the effort showed that elements of the Defense bureaucracy still have the impulse to take unwarranted control of National Guard assets.

There is some irony in that impulse, given that the active military does not itself fully grasp the civil support mission.  A recent GAO study underscored that United States Northern Command has a considerable way to go to complete adequate planning, to identify equipment requirements, and to measure readiness.  Congressional questions about what equipment the Department needs to carry out this mission too often are met with blank stares and contradictory answers which underscores the lack of adequate planning and coordination in this arena.

Meanwhile, as it always has, the National Guard takes missions at home as seriously as it does its missions abroad as the nation’s primary military reserve.  The National Guard is a state-based force located in armories across the country.  The Guard intuitively works well with governors, because these elected officials command the force when it is not activated for federal service.  Authorities under Title 32 of the U.S. Code have allowed the Guard to carry out domestic missions of federal importance, while serving under the command and control of the governors and taking advantage of local expertise and knowledge.  This authority has helped the Guard take the lead in military domestic operations as diverse as Operation Jumpstart along the Southern Border and in providing security at national political conventions.   

To ensure local control, to focus the Department of Defense on domestic missions, and to fully tap the National Guard’s substantial skill and capability, we have introduced S.2760, the National Guard Empowerment and State-National Integration Act of 2008.  Our bill builds on earlier phases of our National Guard Empowerment initiatives that have been enacted into law, elevating the rank of the Chief of the National Guard to four stars, and ensuring that the Deputy of NORTHCOM should come from the Guard’s ranks.

The legislation makes it clear that it is suitable for the active military to serve under the tactical control of the governors through the joint commands of the National Guard.  This clear alignment would ensure unity of effort during any response where needless duplication and tension have no place.  Active duty units have served under the tactical control of foreign governments at various points for decades, so there should be little problem with similar units in serving under the tactical control of our nation’s democratically elected governors.

Our legislation also makes clear that Northern Command should optimally work to support governors, identifying nearby active military assets and helping them “sequence into” a disaster area.  Northern Command is unlike any other military command.  It has to be sensitive to the needs of the states in the same away a command must recognize the needs of host countries, but the Northern Command must go even farther because it operates here at home, among the American people.  Its operations must be defined and limited accordingly.

By making the Chief of the Guard Bureau a full-fledged member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the new Guard Empowerment legislation will ensure that the highest reaches of the military command structure, all the way up to the President, will receive the best advice and guidance on these domestic military matters.  Moreover, in providing the National Guard a limited budget to procure items to better carry out civil support missions, the legislation will ensure that at least some defense assets are going directly to this important mission. 

There is a distinct lack of focus in the Department of Defense in arranging the military’s capabilities to support civilian authority in a domestic response.  That invites problems and inefficiency, and it’s a troubling deficiency in homeland security and preparedness.  We should not wait for the next administration to begin fixing it and we do not intend to. 

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Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) are the co-chairs of the Senate National Guard Caucus