By Lieutenant Commander Oliver-Leighton Barrett, United States Navy (Retired), Senior Research Fellow
Admiral Keating, Commander of U.S. Northern Command from 2004 to 2007, remarked that “The energy Katrina released was the equivalent of 1,000 Hiroshima explosions.” In responding to the aftermath of the hurricane, U.S. Northern Command units – in conjunction with the National Guard – providing tens of thousands of military personnel, search and rescue resources, and humanitarian supplies.
Though the combined destructive energy and impact of the 2017 Hurricane triumvirate, Harvey, Irma and Maria, have yet to be conclusively framed and assessed, it’s worthwhile even now to look at some of the ways that the military is increasingly being drawn into the kinds of battles that can’t be won with weaponry. Such conversations are especially relevant since the military (particularly, Combatant Commands, their components, and National Guard units) is increasingly being called upon to significantly augment civil emergency agencies after big storms events.
Natural disasters dominating the domestic military agenda
As of this writing, NORTHCOM is concurrently coordinating responses (in support of Federal and state agencies) to a spate of disasters across Texas, Mexico (earthquake), Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A cursory review of NORTHCOM’s public releases dating back to September 2016 reveals that real-world disaster response efforts dominate the command’s action packed calendar, not terrorism or other threats the military routinely trains to confront. Although the North Korean ballistic missile program keeps the command on its toes, it is natural disasters that keep its components on the move and increasingly spread thin.
According to the NORTHCOM Public Relations office, in Puerto Rico the command is settling in for a “predominantly land-based effort designed to provide longer term support, and it continues to conduct search and rescue operations and restoring power at critical facilities.” Only a few hundred miles southeast of a devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) had a Joint Task Force operating in support of “the rapid delivery of USAID/OFDA relief supplies throughout Dominica, including very isolated areas.”
The command’s on-site component, the Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands, also counts on the robust capabilities of the USS Wasp – one of the largest amphibious ships in the world and the operational centerpiece of the response force. In the wake of the storm, the “mini-Carrier” utilized its organic helicopter force to extract over 100 American citizens from Dominica and from the nearby islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. A few weeks prior to the Dominica response, JTF- Leeward Islands forces worked with a deployed USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to install two lightweight desalination units in the French collectivity of Saint Martin.
Military disaster response not just a 2017 anomaly
The most significant real-world event USSOUTHCOM addressed last year was the swathe of destruction left by Hurricane Matthew in southwestern Haiti. The command’s responding sub-component (Joint Task Force-Matthew) directed helicopter crews to deliver more than 601,000 pounds of relief commodities (aid and supplies) to devastated areas over a period of several months. A small armada consisting of the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, with over 2,000 military personnel and 11 helicopters aboard, and other supporting vessels, provided critical lifesaving support to the USAID-led relief operations.
Six years prior in the same Caribbean nation, SOUTHCOM (in coordination with the Office of Foreign Disaster Relief) responded to the aftermath of a powerful earthquake. The command’s assigned forces to that response included over 22,000 service members, 33 Navy and Coast Guard vessels, and over 300 aircraft. The Commander at the time, General Douglas Fraser, during his first Commander’s Update Brief (CUB) covering the response remarked “If someone told me when I started my military career that the biggest military effort I would lead would be related to a natural disaster, I would have laughed.”
Though earthquakes can be tremendously destructive (the 19 September 2017 earthquake that caused massive destruction across Mexico City is a poignant reminder) it is wind and water events that continue to cause the most devastation on a persistent basis. It’s worth considering what Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, (Former commander of Pacific Command and a current member of the Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board) revealed as some practical wisdom he shared with all those that came to work for him at the Command. He stated:
…if there’s one thing I tell everybody that comes to work for me – every commander – I [say] ‘While you’re here, you may not have a conflict with another military, but you will have a natural disaster that you have to either assist in, or be prepared to manage the consequences on the other side. And that has been true every year.
The Admiral has been consistent with his statements concerning the security implications of natural disasters. In reference to his Command’s disaster response mission (and coincidentally, just a week prior to the impacts of a Typhoon that devastated large parts of the Philippines in November 2013) he explained:
“If something is going to happen in the Pacific that is going to create a churn in the security environment, the most likely thing will be a humanitarian disaster problem of some kind – whether it is horrific typhoons or tsunamis or floods or something else.”
Recently, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, General Joseph Lengyel, affirmed Admiral Locklear’s perspective, as well as the perspective of a number of senior leaders in the current Department of Defense, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, stating:
“I do think that the climate is changing, and I do think that it is becoming more severe…I do think that storms are becoming bigger, larger, more violent…It impacts me because the National Guard does provide — we are the military domestic response force. We keep that as part of our job jar…”
Time to talk seriously about new churns in the security environment
It’s premature to suggest that the destructive 2017 Hurricane season is a “new normal.” However, according to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University, “Anthropogenic warming by the end of the 21st century will likely cause tropical cyclones to have substantially higher rainfall rates, with a model-projected increase of about 10-15% for rainfall rates averaged within about 100 km of the storm center.” These super flood events – the kinds that require robust military rescue interventions – will increase thanks to (a) rising sea levels, (b) an increase in tropical storm intensity, and (c) greater rainfall from tropical storms.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria are representative examples of the kinds of storms that the Fourth National Climate Assessment suggests American states and territories will more frequently experience. The breathtaking scope and duration of 2017 military supported disaster response operations should instigate debate and stimulate policy innovations on military supported disaster response operations. Conversations centered on how the military can better prepare itself to support, and work more seamlessly, with civilian authorities to act as first responders, will lead to the kind of national policy making that makes whole-of-government responses more effective.
In our 2016 Briefing Book we advocated giving “the Combatant Commands, the Military Departments, and the Defense Agencies the guidance, tools, resources and education they need to address climate change risks” – risks that include more intense wind and water events impacting more American population centers and critical infrastructure (i.e. civilian and military ports, facilities and other assets). Soon, the operations “fog” related to the Hurricane Maria response effort will start to clear, providing more head space for civilian and military leaders to assess if their planners, watch standers, on-site responders had the appropriate “guidance, tools, resources and education” to most quickly alleviate suffering.
Lastly, challenging the efficacy of doctrinal paradigms that situate disaster response missions on the flatter ends of the military readiness and operations bell curve can only pay off since such paradigms stymie more responsive inter-agency planning and operations frameworks. Sensible changes will create more elasticity (to include scalability) for how and when military forces are deployed in support of disaster response operations and will ultimately save lives, and more quickly restore normalcy for distressed populations.