The Best Defense

The deeper meaning of 'surge' is to ramp up for any contingency, including civilian disaster response.

Last winter's harsh snowstorms, serious spring flooding and the more recent rash of tornadoes should prompt us to consider the deeper meaning of the term "surge," for there is an important relationship that's almost always ignored. Most Americans think of a surge as an increased pace of military operations, as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet there is a much deeper and broader meaning to the expression. Surge capabilities enable the rapid and intense application of resources to address almost any catastrophe, military or otherwise.

The ability to surge militarily involves a number of interrelated capabilities. It requires properly trained personnel who are available quickly and who have proper offensive materials and defensive capabilities. For example, in addition to munitions and training, vehicles need to be protected against improvised explosive devices and other forms of attack. There must also be sufficient airlift and sea lift to get them to the fight. All this mandates some built-in redundancy.

Simply put, the ability to surge militarily requires a large commitment of resources that must be maintained and ready at relatively short notice.

The broader, deeper meaning of a surge is a willingness to commit resources and advanced planning to any rapid-reaction contingency, civilian or military. Economists often refer to this as the challenge of bounded rationality. The idea is that human beings weigh costs and benefits based on what appears on their mental screens, as far as they normally stretch them. But if an event occurs that is not on anyone's screen, the result can be unpleasant surprises, often with significant costs.

As the nation experienced this spring's extraordinary storms and flooding, many localities were rendered almost helpless because of an unwillingness to invest in contingency capabilities. Why? Because they are not usually necessary, and redundancy has costs.

The past several years have also brought medical contagions, from bird flu to swine flu, with the associated need to rapidly inoculate and protect millions. Alas, in the absence of modernization efforts, H1N1 flu vaccine production is based on a 60-year-old process that is slow and yields a vaccine with a relatively short expiration period.

While production generally ramped up well (indeed, at record rates given the limited technology), there were still manufacturing problems that delayed delivery until after the second wave of infections had peaked. Ironically, the federal government's purchase of almost 230 million doses came too late for many and has now left us with about 138 million unused doses that are expiring. Poor as our H1N1 performance was, most experts today believe we are nonetheless far better prepared to address a flu outbreak than we are other diseases or a biological attack.

Even in the best of times, few organizations, private or public, are eager to commit funds and personnel to vague or seemingly far-fetched possibilities. U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, a prolific author, attributes this tendency toward ill-preparedness to three circumstances: "When fixing things after the fact seems like a feasible alternative to preventing the disaster; when the people responsible have a short time horizon; when the contingency is so uncertain or inconceivable that no objective probability can be attached to it."

The American public, of course, is familiar with the short-time, short-horizon factor, an awareness that began in the 1980s when Japanese businesses appeared to be clobbering the United States commercially because their American counterparts seemed too focused on the short term. The philosophy attributed to Louis XV, Apres nous, le deluge (The disaster will come after I am gone), is sadly applicable to elected government officials as well. And who can calculate the probability of a terrorist attack, a Chernobyl-like disaster, landslides or floods?

The late economist John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out an intriguing anomaly in his 1958 book The Affluent Society-Americans are picky and demanding when it comes to acquiring private goods and services, but we are quite minimalist when it comes to public goods. Galbraith claimed we have the world's cleanest homes, but the dirtiest streets; excellent facilities for goods production, but poor infrastructure for transporting goods and people; and a multitude of automobiles, but scant availability of parking. In short, America's orientation toward private goods and immediate gratification is myopic.

In this age of budgetary stringency, it is easier to ignore less imminent, seemingly remote, issues-possible hurricanes, earthquakes, oil spills, crippling winters, virulent viruses and unanticipated military involvement. But is this wise?

"Going on the cheap" really isn't so cheap after all-it is best measured in lives lost, either on the battlefield or via vaccination failures or the negative fallout from minimal funding for responding to future catastrophic events. It is measured in accidents that should never have happened. As Tony Hayward, BP's former chief, recently noted, the company's contingency plans were inadequate to clean up its oil spill last year and "we were making it up day to day."

Although it appears many states have made considerable progress in public health capabilities since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there remain serious service gaps that are likely to widen under the current budget crisis.

We are long overdue for leading our organizations to pursue carefully designed contingency planning, budget for such efforts and take seriously any warnings these agencies offer. And this must be done both within industry and at all levels of government-national, state and local.

For our military services, that means allocating more dollars and personnel to readiness and sustainability. Japan's tsunami/earthquake disasters are living proof of how devastating the unexpected can be. And Israel's tragic forest fires in December 2010 were worsened by its grossly inefficient and underfunded firefighting capabilities. Let's not let these kinds of failures occur here.

Donald L. Losman is a professor of economics at the National Defense University. The views expressed are his alone.

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