Panelists: Pentagon could take lead role in some disasters

Military would take the lead after large-scale terrorist attacks -- and possibly pandemic flu outbreaks or earthquakes.

The Defense Department may be called upon to lead some responses to disaster, relegating the Homeland Security Department to a support role, defense experts said Monday.

The Pentagon's authority trumps that of DHS in the event of an attack, said David McIntyre, director of the Integrative Center for Homeland Security at Texas A&M University. McIntyre, a 30-year Army veteran, said the Pentagon's role in a disaster leans heavily toward response and recovery, while DHS' is more focused on prevention and mitigation. This could even make the Defense Department suited to lead responses for some incidents that do not involve an attack, such as a pandemic flu outbreak or massive earthquake, McIntyre said. He spoke on a panel at The George Washington University's Eisenhower Series on national security.

The Defense Department "is inevitably going to be called on to take the lead" from DHS after an attack, though it might not want to, said Paul Stockton, former director of the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

Col. Richard Chavez, director of civil support in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense, said local and state agencies must be allowed to contribute significantly and argued that instead of a Defense-led response, multi-departmental collaboration is needed.

The Pentagon must be careful to avoid over-committing to any region, in case it has to later deploy forces to meet separate needs, Chavez said.

Stockton said governors and local leaders must be incorporated into disaster response plans, and must keep their immediate region well-informed. The government should avoid the "slippery slope toward federalizing [the] emergency response system," he said. He noted that the Pentagon also gets involved when public order collapses.

In discussing the magnitude of the disaster response challenge, McIntyre said the average scope of a weapon of mass destruction detonation on a U.S. city could result in 60,000 deaths and projected that as many as four weapons could be detonated at once, as the typical terrorist tactic has been to use multiple simultaneous attacks. "The enemy doesn't do onesies," he said.

Experts called for improvements in the U.S. health care system's ability to respond to another attack on American soil. Stockton said more "surge capacity" in health care is needed, and McIntyre projected that a detonation that resulted in "150,000 casualties [would] fill every burn ward in the United States."

Along with increased hospital surge capacity, experts cautioned that DHS may need a large cadre of educated surge employees. McIntyre called for the creation of a DHS reserve system similar to the one employed by the military, by which enlisted students would pledge to assist in response efforts in exchange for college financing.

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