Mission: Homefront

British soldiers distribute sandbags to a flood-afflicted town in southwest England in February 2014.

A perspective on the role of military forces in civil security

The role that armed forces play in a nation’s domestic matters, including their traditional role in homeland defense, is an increasingly important and complex issue. This is due in large part to the more dangerous, uncertain security environment around the world and reductions in available funding at all levels of government. Many homeland defense and civil security challenges that confront nations today require policymakers to call upon the full range of their nation’s resources to manage them, often in close cooperation with neighboring nations, partners and allies. Although many of these challenges concern public health, safety and security, and natural disasters — challenges involving departments responsible for health and/or homeland security matters — some problems require a military response. Indeed, the role of the military in planning, exercising and preparing to support domestic response activities appears to be growing.

Military forces that have been relatively well-funded, especially in Europe, have characteristics that make them well-suited to assist civil authorities not only in an immediate crisis, but also in the area of consequence management. This is evidenced by the robust chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training program at the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany. Well-supported military forces have their own logistics and communications capabilities, are able to transport resources to where they are needed, can communicate among units and with civil authorities, and can provide their own security while deployed. Further, these forces bring a broad range of capabilities, notably medical and engineering, that are often in great demand when supporting civil authority response activities. As a result, armed forces have become one of the first institutions that policymakers turn to when confronted by the kinds of civil security challenges prevalent today.

American National Guard troops carry food and water for a victim of Superstorm Sandy in November 2012 in New York City. [GETTY IMAGES]

Political leaders often seek out military forces at the onset of a domestic crisis because of their high level of readiness and ability to deploy on short notice. Not only are they called upon to assist with domestic responses, they can also assist with humanitarian response and security efforts outside their home nations. One example is the U.S. Department of Defense’s response to the recent Ebola crisis. To assist in the treatment and management of this deadly epidemic in West Africa by addressing it at its source, at the request of recipient nations, a number of countries, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States, have deployed military units, including medical and engineering experts, to the region. They have established treatment facilities and assisted local governments in managing this deadly epidemic.

Domestically, military forces are often ordered to engage in civil support tasks undertaken in support of the civilian agencies (like the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) responsible for leading and overseeing federal response activities. These tasks include assistance to federal, state and local authorities during disasters, as well as to public health officials and law enforcement authorities. Such military response tasks may involve, in the case of the U.S., both active and reserve forces at the federal level under the command of the president and secretary of defense, and National Guard forces, which are organized state militias under the command of the governors of the 54 states and territories. The U.S. is fortunate to have the National Guard, as these forces are often the first to respond to an incident with their tremendous capability to assist civil authorities.

The types of roles, missions and tasks for which it may be appropriate to employ military forces domestically can be grouped into several categories: natural and man-made disasters, nondisaster events, public health emergencies and support to law enforcement.

Natural and man-made disasters

Providing assistance to civil authorities in the event of a disaster is a U.S. Defense Department mission. It is called Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA). Military forces, usually in concert with defense agencies like the Defense Logistics Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, provide logistical support, including food, lodging, water purification, energy generation and repairs to damaged infrastructure in the aftermath of a man-made or natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the U.S. East Coast in 2012. U.S. Transportation Command played a significant role in disaster response, providing strategic airlift to move critical resources and capabilities from the West Coast to the East Coast. It delivered almost 300 power restoration vehicles and more than 400 technical personnel to help restore electricity to millions of residents. Local reserve military units also responded, providing immediate support to local communities.

Military forces are especially useful in preparing for and responding to a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) incident. Some military units have the ability to detect, identify and assess contamination, and then advise local responders. In the U.S., we have invested significantly in a highly trained 18,000-person force – ready to assist civil authorities – that possesses lifesaving capabilities such as search and rescue, decontamination and medical response to ensure availability of a broad array of capabilities to address any CBRN incident. It is trained and ready to assist civil authorities.

Nondisaster events

Military forces also provide essential services in a nondis-
aster setting, such as widely attended gatherings and sporting events like the Olympic Games. Military units can provide an impressive range of support to civil authorities in charge of these events, including logistical and medical support. It is important to note that, in most instances, U.S. law provides that military forces are reimbursed for their expenses in supporting these kinds of events.

Public health emergencies

Civil authorities can issue requests for military assistance in the event of a public health emergency, which could range from moving patients to staffing mobile hospitals to providing direct care. In the fall of 2014, for example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requested that the secretary of defense make available a 30-member response team of military medical professionals in the event of a worsening Ebola situation inside the U.S. The secretary of defense approved the request, making the team able to deploy on 72-hours notice to augment medical teams from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Support to law enforcement

Military forces also play a role in supporting law enforcement. In the tradition of the U.S. and consistent with our laws, federal military personnel are prohibited from performing direct, civilian-type law enforcement activities. Military forces can, however, provide a range of support to law enforcement entities. Some examples include assisting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents with counterdrug detection and monitoring U.S. borders, providing explosives-detection capabilities and technical assistance at national security special events and enabling the U.S. Coast Guard to conduct its law enforcement mission in the maritime domain. In each case, U.S. military forces generally do not perform direct, civilian-type law enforcement activities, but rather serve as national security “force multipliers” to enable law enforcement professionals to perform their core law enforcement missions more effectively.    

Clearly, nations possess their own traditions regarding the domestic use of their militaries. The appropriate level of domestic involvement by the military is a topic that the U.S. struggled with as early as 1787, as can be seen in Federalist Paper No. 8. Europe, too, has had its own debates about the role of standing armies in civil security.

That said, many European countries have had significant experience deploying their armed forces within their borders in support of civil authorities. They have been deployed to perform border security tasks (Italy, 1960 and 1995; Austria, 1995 to present), provide essential services in the event of labor unrest (France, 1988, transit strike; UK, 2002, firefighting), and provide security against organized criminal groups (Italy, 1992). The protection and security of key installations such as government buildings may also fall to military forces. They also perform a similar role in providing security at major events such as the Olympic Games (Greece, 2004) and G-8 summits (Italy, 2009). European armed forces have frequently been called into action for disaster relief and humanitarian actions such as floods (Germany, 1995 and 2002; Austria, 2006). French and Greek armed forces are deployed nearly annually to help fight forest fires. Other deployments of this sort include avalanche rescue support (Austria, 1999) and the rescue of illegal immigrants at sea (France, Italy, Malta, Spain and the U.S. in 1994 and 1995).

Likewise, U.S. military forces have an extensive history of domestic deployments upon request from civil (and federal) authorities. As mentioned earlier, U.S. military forces have been deployed on numerous occasions to assist local authorities with managing the consequences of disasters, fighting forest fires, providing border and critical asset security and supporting law enforcement counterdrug activities. Most recently, U.S. forces have been called upon to assist other government agencies by providing temporary housing for thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children who crossed the nation’s southwest border with Mexico.

Indeed, the range of tasks that military forces may expect to perform has long been broad and continues to widen, given the current security and fiscal environments. Military forces have become, in many instances, a resource of choice for political leaders faced with intractable (often fiscal) problems and in need of an immediate solution to a complex situation. Clearly, there are civil security tasks that the military can, should and must perform, but in the U.S. view, it is crucial that — regardless of what missions they are ordered to perform — military forces remain strictly under civilian control. In the case of the U.S., federal military forces remain under the command of the president and secretary of defense (both civilians) and always at the request of other federal authorities (e.g., the secretary of homeland security or the secretary of health and human services). State military forces are under the command of the state’s or territory’s governor (also a civilian).

Another key to employing military forces appropriately in support of civil authorities is to ensure that they are bringing a unique capability to the situation and doing so in a way that bolsters the safety and security of the people of the U.S. In turn, the military forces assisting in these missions receive a benefit, especially with regard to increased readiness.

Indeed, the armed forces are a tremendous asset in any effort to help communities in a time of need. They have unique capabilities and can react quickly. Furthermore, in recent years, many of our nations’ military members at all levels have developed well-honed diplomatic and communications skills, having served multiple tours overseas where they interacted daily with communities and their leaders. Their engagement on the domestic front offers them opportunities to practice those perishable skills and gain an appreciation of how civil authorities think and act, and how they “fit in,” which, in turn, can make the mission more successful and increase military readiness. Military forces and their supportive families are truly a national treasure and a great investment for the nation. That will ensure that they are always prepared to assist their fellow citizens in time of need.  

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