Military’s homeland defense, civil support plans fall short, auditors find
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it was clear to lawmakers and Pentagon planners that the Defense Department needed to be better prepared to respond to attacks against the United States at home and support civilian authorities in the aftermath. As a result, Defense established U.S. Northern Command in October 2002 to provide command and control of military operations at home, and to coordinate support to civilian agencies.
Since NORTHCOM's creation, the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly pointed out the need for more clearly defined roles in emergency response, particularly where the military is concerned. That need was on full display after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005, revealing considerable confusion about the role of the military following a disaster and the capabilities the services could bring to bear.
Now, two new reports from GAO released Wednesday show that, despite progress in planning for homeland defense and civil support operations, there are significant gaps in coordination and readiness. Auditors attribute some of the challenges NORTHCOM faces to its unique role among combatant commands. Because its area of responsibility includes 49 states and Washington, it must coordinate plans and operations with 49 separate state governments, the District of Columbia city government and numerous federal agencies.
In one report focused broadly on NORTHCOM planning, auditors found that while it had completed the nine major plans required of it, command leaders did not know whether other Defense organizations involved in the process had completed their tasks because NORTHCOM only recently had begun to develop a tracking system for that. Additionally, the command was unable to reliably identify requirements for capabilities it may be tapped to provide because it hadn't received detailed information from states or the Homeland Security Department.
Because NORTHCOM has few actual forces under its command absent an emergency (units, trained personnel and equipment), there is considerable uncertainty as to the availability and readiness of forces that may be needed for a particular mission.
"Although DoD stresses that homeland defense is a major priority, it has routinely chosen not to assign forces to NORTHCOM," the auditors noted. "DoD could allocate forces to NORTHCOM and assign specific forces to the command's plans, but this would not guarantee that those forces would not have to be deployed elsewhere. However, it would provide DoD and the NORTHCOM commander with a better basis to assess the risk that the command would be unable to successfully execute one or more of its missions," the report said.
The report also found that NORTHCOM cannot assess the readiness of military units for its civil support mission because most plans do not specify tasks against which the units can be evaluated.
The audit wasn't entirely negative. GAO found that NORTHCOM had an adequate number of planning personnel and had integrated 36 National Guard and 22 Coast Guard personnel into most of its directorates, improving its ability to coordinate with other federal agencies and states.
The other report looked at NORTHCOM's efforts to coordinate its plans with states and the National Guard Bureau. There auditors found that the command had involved less than 25 percent of state adjutants general in developing and reviewing plans, and was unfamiliar with state emergency response plans and had no process for obtaining them.
Additionally, GAO said a 2005 agreement intended to spell out procedures by which NORTHCOM and the National Guard Bureau interact did not clearly define each agency's roles and responsibilities in planning for homeland defense and civil support. "The lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities has resulted in confusion and duplicative or wasted efforts," GAO reported.
In both reports, Defense generally agreed with GAOs findings and recommendations.