Critics Question Army Readiness for Post-WMD-Attack Domestic Patrols

Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008
By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army’s ability to help restore public order after a large-scale domestic terrorist attack — a mission the president could assign to federal troops during a crisis — is in doubt, according to a number of critics (see GSN, June 27).

[Image not posted](Dec. 24) — A New Jersey National Guard member observes a WMD-response drill in 2005 (William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

The Defense Department, deeply cognizant of public aversion to martial law, has generally been reticent to discuss the possibility that federal troops might be ordered to patrol U.S. streets following a nuclear, chemical or biological attack.

In fact, the role is extremely limited, reflecting a nationwide preference for disaster control at the local level. Area police, fire and rescue personnel would almost certainly serve as the “first responders” for preventing or containing chaos after an attack, with National Guard troops under state-level control potentially serving as backup.

Only in an instance in which a governor requested federal help for overwhelmed first responders, or if a president determined such assistance was necessary, would federal military forces play a potential law-and-order role, according to U.S. officials. Most would be expected to come from active-duty Army or federalized Army National Guard forces, experts say.

“There’s a political decision that would have to be made before you would use any military enforcement capability,” Gen. Victor Renuart, who heads U.S. Northern Command, told reporters last week.

For example, active-duty federal troops might be needed to lead an orderly evacuation following the detonation of a nuclear bomb, or to enforce a citywide quarantine during a man-made epidemic, experts have said.

“It is prudent for us always to look at the potential threats out there,” Renuart said. “[A] terrorist [scenario] is really the one we focus on most heavily. And so we do think about the possibilities that might require use of DOD military.”

Northern Command, the U.S. military’s homeland defense headquarters, recently expanded its ability to offer medical and search-and-rescue capabilities to local communities in the event of a major attack (see GSN, Dec. 18).

However, a new 4,700-troop unit — formed under an unwieldy moniker, the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-yield Explosive Consequence Management Response Force — would not assume any law-enforcement role, command officials emphasized.

Some critics have argued that Northern Command has not paid as much attention to preparing federal troops for a possible role in patrolling U.S. streets and helping restore order after such a large-scale event.

While such a contingency might be unlikely to occur, it is vital that federal forces learn beforehand how to handle such a sensitive task, these experts have argued. The concern is that without proper training, federal troops could unwittingly compound an already intense situation with inappropriate applications of force.

“There’s a lot of worry about [the federal military response] if a nuclear weapon goes off in a U.S. city,” said one homeland security specialist, retired Air Force Col. Randall Larsen, in an October telephone interview. “If we don’t properly organize, train and equip, we shouldn’t deploy active-duty military forces in our cities.”

“If the situation is so dire that they are [called on] to do that, then they need to get it right the first time,” agreed James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation homeland security expert. “You don’t want them learning on the job in response to a nuclear disaster. That’s not a good time for them to do that.”

Without special training, the “rules of engagement” for such circumstances might be quite unfamiliar to U.S. troops during a real-world event. Such rules could determine, for instance, under what circumstances troops could set up a cordon, use force or detain people.

Renuart said his command does prepare for the mission, despite its improbability.

“I don’t lose sleep that you would have a breakdown of such magnitude that both a state and federal law enforcement response, as well as a state National Guard response, might be inadequate,” Renuart said at the Dec. 18 breakfast event, sponsored by the Center for Media and Security. “[However,] our role is to have a capability that can respond if the president were to choose that action.”

Standing Ready

U.S. military officials have said that more than 3,000 federal troops typically stand ready for this potential domestic patrol mission.

“The fact of the matter is there are trained and ready forces to do this … in the event we have to do it with Title 10 [federal military] forces,” said one U.S. homeland defense official who asked not to be named. “This stuff is done by serious people who want to do it right.”

The Pentagon has designated a “Rapid Response Force” that could be used for “domestic emergency response requirements in support of civil authorities,” according to Lt. Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Northern Command spokesman.

The RRF assignment rotates annually among active-duty Army units of at least brigade size, Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for U.S. Army North, told Global Security Newswire in October. His organization provides Army forces to Northern Command.

Army brigades normally number between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers.

Ross said a smaller “Quick Response Force” could deploy even more expeditiously than the larger, more capable RRF unit to which it belongs. He would not divulge how many troops or which particular units are assigned the rapid-response role.

“[The] exact number, composition and home station location of QRF/RRFs is flexible, depending on the nature of the domestic emergency and the requirements of civil authorities,” Ross said.

However, a unit tapped for this responsibility remains “eligible” for deployment abroad to hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan, Johnson said. The Army North spokesman said he was unaware of whether rapid-response forces had, in fact, been directed to missions seen as more pressing elsewhere around the globe.

Given how strained Army forces have become following years of an arduous deployment cycle, though, Johnson conceded that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if troops earmarked for homeland defense had been sent overseas one or more times. In such a case, he said, another brigade-sized unit at home would be identified to assume the rapid-response role.

Yet, some experts wonder whether in such cases, stand-in forces receive adequate training for the homeland defense mission, particularly given that they might be recovering from recent deployment or preparing for their next tour abroad.

If the best-trained troops for civil defense missions are “in Iraq or Afghanistan, then how are we going to deploy them to Los Angeles?” Larsen asked. To set a higher standard for ensuring that federal troops are ready to take on the mission in an emergency, he said, “maybe we should throw in a fourth word: organized, trained, equipped and available.”

Antique Laws and Emerging Missions

A law dating back to 1807 gives the president the authority to assign active-duty soldiers a law-enforcement role on U.S. soil only under very narrow circumstances, when a state requires assistance in subduing violence. The Insurrection Act’s terms have been invoked just a handful of times over the past 50 years.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush exercised the law when he sent federal troops to respond to riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict. Some critics have complained that the troops — lacking advance training for quelling domestic turmoil — overused firepower in that instance.

Absent such extreme conditions, another vintage law — the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act — would normally prevent the U.S. military from conducting domestic police functions day to day.

While local law enforcement or National Guard troops under a state governor’s command remain the first responders of choice in such circumstances, the president could call on federal soldiers if it is determined that regional authorities are unavailable or overwhelmed.

Lawmakers and legal scholars see a delicate balance between the civil rights protections offered by the Posse Comitatus Act and the civil order concerns embodied in the Insurrection Act.

Congress last year repealed a short-lived Bush administration move to strengthen the president’s ability to deploy federal troops for law enforcement, under the Insurrection Act.

Key Capitol Hill opponents of the fiscal 2006 Defense Department measure exhorted lawmakers to remain vigilant on the issue.

“The effort showed that elements of the defense bureaucracy still have the impulse to take unwarranted control of [state] National Guard assets,” Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.), co-chairmen of the Senate National Guard Caucus, wrote in a June 3opinion piece published in The Hill.

“There is some irony in that impulse, given that the active military does not itself fully grasp the civil support mission,” the two lawmakers added. “Congressional questions about what equipment the [Defense] 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.”

In films such as “Outbreak” (1995) and “The Siege” (1998), Hollywood has conjured up visions of heavily armed federal troops riding roughshod over innocent civilians grappling with a terror attack or a pandemic virus.

However, “you should never let the script of a movie drive you to a conclusion about how we would use military capability,” Renuart told reporters.

“If we got to something so significant where federal forces might be required, it would be sort of unanimous among every citizen in the country, as opposed to sort of imposing that,” he said.

Following the recent announcement about the new WMD response units, a number of bloggers and news writers stoked worries that the military is preparing to expand its domestic law-and-order role, according to Northern Command officials.

Homeland defense experts have responded that, paradoxically, practicing the controversial role in military exercises might be the best antidote to excessive use of force under such sensitive circumstances. Improved readiness, these experts say, could help ensure that troops understand the limits of operating inside the 50 states.

A Need To Do More?

A loss of order in the wake of a large-scale attack is not a given, Carafano noted.

“People generally follow rules after a natural disaster and listen to authorities,” he said in a Dec. 19 telephone interview.

Some critics have charged, though, that the U.S. military’s distaste for a domestic policing role has contributed to a failure to identify enough troops or to provide sufficient training and nonlethal devices for the fairly unique mission.

“I am pleased that there are dedicated forces,” Larsen said. “But … I am worried that the training and the equipment is not at the proper levels right now.”

Richard Danzig, a senior defense and foreign policy adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, said the Pentagon has been slow to embrace its homeland defense role. He spoke during an Oct. 2 breakfast with reporters, while the presidential campaign was still under way.

“The strengths of the Department of Defense come in recognizing a mission, training for it, developing situational awareness, [and] having the kind of capability to do it,” Danzig said. “And if we don’t have those kinds of capabilities, then we put our men and women from the military in harm’s way, and we wind up not being able to perform the mission as well as we want to.”

The former Navy secretary acknowledged that the Pentagon had taken some initial steps to identify its homeland defense responsibilities. However, the military must now follow through to ensure readiness, he said.

The Defense Department “needs to focus not just on recognizing a responsibility here but on actually preparing for it,” Danzig said. “And, that, we haven’t gotten to yet.”

Looking across the range of skill sets required after a large-scale disaster — to include medical, search and rescue, hazardous materials containment, and law enforcement — Carafano said the Defense Department does not have readily available the roughly 60,000 skilled and equipped military personnel that he thinks are needed to respond within the critical first 72 hours. That is the time frame in which the most lives can be saved, he said.

“They’re probably one-third to one-half of the way there,” Carafano said. “They’re a lot closer than they were at 9/11, but not quite there yet.”

Of those 60,000 required, it is unclear how many might be needed to restore order and enforce laws, with many factors depending on the nature of the crisis, he said.

However, Carafano said, “I don’t think a brigade would be enough.”

Some Army officials contend that years of conducting stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have given a broad number of troops the skills needed to undertake security operations at home, even if they have not received special training for domestic contingencies.

“We are training and equipping to conduct stability operations anywhere,” said Harvey Perritt, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

Carafano disputed that contention, asserting that homeland disaster response missions must be handled with an even greater emphasis on less forceful tactics and the use of appropriate protective equipment.

“Your typical U.S. military unit today is not trained to operate in a domestic civil-military environment, and they’re not well equipped for it with nonlethal devices to subdue people,” he said. Further, Carafano said, “the military protection gear is not really designed to protect troops … against rocks and bottles.”

The Leahy-Bond commentary sounded a similar alarm.

“Northern Command is unlike any other military command,” said the two senators. “It has to be sensitive to the needs of the states in the same way 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.”

The Army this month published an updated field manual suggesting that virtually any unit could be called on to play a role in a domestic emergency.

“Since the homeland is vulnerable to attacks and natural disasters, all components must be prepared to conduct civil support operations on short notice,” states Field Manual 7-0, Training for Full Spectrum Operations. “Regular Army forces are normally involved in civil support when natural or man-made disasters and incidents within the United States and its territories exceed the capabilities of reserve component organizations and domestic civilian agencies.”

Given the deployment and personnel strains on Army units, it is not clear how much they should turn their attention to the unique demands of less likely domestic missions, according to some officials.

“In the relative scheme of priorities domestically and internationally, where does ‘man, train and equip’ [for domestic patrols] fit in, when they’re not the force of first resort?” asked the U.S. homeland defense official. “How much training does that require?”

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