Commuters crowd a platform after exiting the L train in the Union Square subway station in New York in May.

Commuters crowd a platform after exiting the L train in the Union Square subway station in New York in May. Mark Lennihan/AP

When the War Comes, What Should We Civilians Do?

The military can’t do it all. The U.S. needs a national civilian emergency corps, trained and ready to help in case of the next disaster, be it cyber, nuclear, or natural.

Imagine this. Yesterday, Russian warships cut several of the undersea cables that power the internet. Millions of Europeans suddenly found themselves unable to use email and text messaging services. They were unable to bank or pay their bills online. Retailers’ websites ceased to function. Families stampeded on grocery stores. By the evening, internet-enabled hospitals had to revert to old-fashioned treatment. At bank branches, fist fights broke out as people queued up to withdraw cash. Unverified news of an impending military invasion caused residents to leave major cities, clogging up up rail lines, highways, and gas stations.

Don’t worry, this news is fictional. But smaller variations of it will happen. And not even the best security services and armed forces can prevent every single attack on our way of life. Instead of seeing all citizens as passive participants needed to protected, we should give some of them an active role. In a hybrid warfare world, in order to respond effectively we need a critical mass of trained civilians. It’s time we created a national civil emergency force. Because the threat of it happening is already here.

“We are now seeing Russian underwater activity in the vicinity of undersea cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen,” Rear Adm. Andrew Lennon, who commands NATO’s submarine forces, said this month. Britain’s chief of defense, Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, also warned in recent weeks that Russia now has the ability to cut the undersea cables which power virtually all internet traffic. If that happened, chaos would ensue.

“Because the digital environment is based on a physical infrastructure, vital functions of Western digital societies can be significantly harmed if sea cables are unable to transmit data,” explained Jarno Limnéll, professor of cyber security at Aalto University in Finland.

What should citizens do if – or when – such a catastrophic attack occurs? What about a major terrorist attack or natural disaster?

The truth is only the fewest of us have any experience living under anything less than peaceful conditions. Anyone under age 65 doesn’t remember World War II. In Germany, Italy, and the UK only about 20 percent of the population is 65 years or older.

Even fewer of us serve in the armed forces. In the UK – a country of some 66 million – there are about 148,000 active-duty men and women and 37,000 reservists. Germany has 83 million people but just 179,000 active-duty troops. Besides, troops are busy with military defense. Even though they sometimes patrol the streets as part of counterterrorism duties, most don’t have the capacity or training to restore calm after sabotaged internet cables strike public transportation, food provisions, and power supplies. Or after a false terrorist alarm of the kind that took place on London’s busy Oxford Street last month, causing chaos as thousands of pedestrians fled the alleged scene of a shooting. NATO members likely would squabble over whether sabotaged internet cables warrant a collective response according to Article 5.

“For cyber hacks and attacks on the power supply of you need specialists to lead the technical response, and in case of a physical attack or mass panic situation you need people in arms,” said Admiral (ret.) Giampaolo Di Paola, a former defense minister of Italy. “But trained civilians can assist.”

During the Cold War, Communist countries misleadingly named their professional armed forces national people’s armies. Tomorrow’s national people’s armies should be the real kind, consisting of citizens trained in national emergency response. It’s not a new concept. Especially during the early decades of the Cold War, Western countries had civilian corps tasked with assisting the armed forces in case of a nuclear attack. But since a hybrid warfare attack may have no military element at all, tomorrow’s national contingency forces wouldn’t necessarily assist armed forces.

“Our adversaries’ evolving military strategy no longer focuses on destroying our armed forces but on disabling our critical national infrastructure,” noted Gen. Sir Richard Barrons, former commander of Britain’s Joint Forces Command. Together with software engineers and the police, trained civilians would instead be a country’s first line of defense. They could, Di Paola suggests, for example help with traffic control duties and first aid. Barrons points out that while policing work in national emergencies has to be led by the police, law enforcement agencies lack scale. Instead law enforcement agencies and the armed forces could call in trained civilians, who would assist under their direction. Call them national security Good Samaritans.

Conscription countries such as Finland already have a critical mass of ex-conscripts who have the skills necessary for a national emergency. But most countries don’t. As Barrons points out, “mostly we just hope that people have been boy or girl scouts”. Leaving the vast majority of our well-educated populations unskilled in emergency response is wasting an enormous resource.

Such national emergency forces would not be standing civilian armies but people who have received civil contingency training and can be activated in an emergency. No longer would soldiers have to be used for sandbag-piling. “The armed forces would be called on anyway, because they have certain capabilities such as engineering, but civilians could provide most of the manpower,” Di Paola noted.

Italy is currently experimenting with such a national emergency service. A new scheme – essentially the reformed civilian service performed by conscientious objectors when Italy had conscription -- allows young Italians and foreigners to spend six to eight months attending civil emergency response training with NGOs; last year more than 35,000 people participated. According to Di Paola, civil emergency training could be made mandatory for Italian teenagers. That, to be sure, would create civil resilience. “And it would help young people become more engaged in society and make them more mature citizens,” Di Paola pointed out.

Even without conscription there’s plenty of scope for civil emergency forces, whether called National Emergency Force, National People’s Army, National Emergency Good Samaritan Corps or something else. “You could create an organization that provides training, for example during the last year of school,” Barrons suggested. “Then there would be a mobilization plan for times of crisis that would turn the graduates into an operational force.”

The United States would be well-served by such resilience. Contemplating a catastrophic attack on our way of live is, of course, hardly uplifting. But it’s even less uplifting to feel powerless to do anything about it.

A core group of civilians trained to respond to such threats could prove an effective and affordable deterrent. Our adversaries may want to attack us, but primarily they want to intimidate us. We need resilience built into all our national systems. Enlist ordinary citizens and they will feel empowered by their role. Besides, there’s value in not having to check Facebook if we are under attack – especially if there is no Internet.

Elisabeth Braw is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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