Military force reconfiguration may be necessary for homeland defense

Defense Department officials may need to rework the structure of the military to meet additional homeland defense missions, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office.

The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, enacted to preclude federal troops from doing the bidding of local politicians in the occupied South following the Civil War, prohibits the military from conducting domestic law enforcement operations. But the law also allows Congress and the president to make exceptions, and after the Sept. 11 attacks the Defense Department picked up extra responsibilities focused on preventing future domestic terrorist attacks. This led to the creation of the Northern Command, an organization that consolidates all existing military homeland defense and homeland security operations. Bush administration officials also developed the National Strategy for Homeland Security, which broadly outlines the Defense Department's role in supporting homeland security efforts.

But despite the plan and the new organization, U.S. military forces remain poised for overseas combat and the existing structure may overtax military personnel, reduce training levels and threaten readiness levels, GAO concluded in its report (03-670). For example, four Army military police combat units guarding federal installations could not complete required training for battlefield conditions, and Air Force fighter units assigned to combat air patrols were unable to complete required tactical maneuvers because of homeland security-related responsibilities. "DoD has not evaluated or adjusted its force structure to perform these missions," GAO found in its review. "Some forces are generally not well-tailored to perform domestic military missions."

Also, operations both at home and abroad are causing stress in the forces, the report said. During a Senate hearing in the weeks before the war in Iraq, all of the military leaders acknowledged that military troops were stressed by increasing operational demands. In the months since September 2001, Defense officials have issued 23 "stop loss" orders, which ban military personnel from leaving their services by suspending normal separations and retirements.

"Military force readiness may erode and future personnel retention problems may develop, if action is not taken to address these problems," the GAO report concluded. It recommended that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "assess domestic military mission requirements and determine if steps should be taken to structure U.S. forces to better accomplish domestic military missions while maintaining proficiency for overseas combat missions."

In a written response, Paul McHale, Defense assistant secretary for homeland defense, said that a force structure study was already under way.

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