By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 30, 2007 - The fundamental lesson of the past five years is the recognition that the Defense Department has a central role to play in achieving security for the U.S. homeland and in providing assistance to civilian agencies when responding to natural or man-made disasters, the department's point man for homeland defense said. The Defense Department's security role goes to the core of DoD's historic mission, but the requirement to provide catastrophic support to civilian agencies is an evolving and increasingly important capability, Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and Americas security affairs, said in an interview.
Congress established the position of assistant secretary for homeland defense in 2002; McHale became the first person to hold the position in February 2003. Originally, the office looked at the oldest mission of the military in the United States: that of defending the country. As part of this mission, officials in the office look at ways to provide support to civil authorities.
The office was put in place as a response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It works with other federal agencies, state and local governments to coordinate military response in case of an attack on the homeland that overwhelms local responders.
It soon became obvious that the same capabilities needed to recover from an attack also would be needed in the event of a natural disaster. The General Accountability Office praised the U.S. military's record in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in 2005. The GAO called the military response "proactive."
"Hurricane Katrina was much more than an isolated event," McHale said. "We see it as a case study in catastrophic response. The capabilities that the Department of Defense brought to bear in the aftermath of Katrina would resemble in many ways the kinds of capabilities that we would assemble and deploy in response to a terrorist attack involving a weapon of mass destruction."
While the military response to Katrina generally was effective, the department still examined its operations and learned from the experience. Those lessons learned "will better enable us to prepare for a possible response to a catastrophic terrorist event," the secretary said.
The military support to catastrophic California wildfires earlier this fall demonstrated one of the capabilities that grew out of the Katrina/Rita experience, McHale said.
Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, it became clear that virtually everyone underestimated the extent of the damage, the secretary said. Major newspapers initially reported the Gulf Coast had "dodged a bullet." Within 48 hours after Katrina made landfall, it became clear that the damage was far worse than initial reports, McHale said.
"As a result, the formal lessons learned from Katrina focused on wide area damage assessment using aviation platforms in order to collect imagery to allow a faster and more accurate assessment of damage," he said.
Hurricane Rita followed soon after Katrina. Then-U.S. Northern Command chief Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating took the lessons of Katrina and developed an imagery package that could deliver rapid and accurate wide-area damage assessment. "While we have assembled that kind of imagery package for a number of events following Hurricane Katrina, the most substantial chance to deploy such a package was to Southern California for supporting the firefighters," McHale said.
Though some of the imagery was quite successful, "others failed to meet the test of cost-effectiveness and relevance," he said. "Across the board, the collection of the imagery and its successful dissemination played an important and unprecedented role in assisting civilian authorities. Without question, imagery established a precedent for the effective sharing in future events."
One example of continued emphasis on homeland defense missions is that more than 60 members of McHale's staff are embedded with various agencies at the Department of Homeland Security.
The homeland defense office's mission has increased since its inception.
"When the office created in 2002, the exclusive focus was on the domestic security mission combined with catastrophic response," McHale said. "We immediately began to work with counterpart officials in Canada and Mexico as well as interagency partners in our own government.
"Now have (responsibility for) all of the policy issues from northern Canada to the tip of South America," he said. "If an issue effects the Department of Defense, it is subject to the oversight responsibility of this office."
Central and South America are critically important to the United States, and there are important national security issues with the region that must be dealt with, McHale said. His office now must deal with issues as diverse as Colombia and the threats of narco terrorism, tensions with Venezuela and Hugo Chavez, and military-to-military contacts with Brazil, Chile, Argentina and El Salvador. The U.S. military works with countries as they build military forces that respond to civilian control.
All these problems and many more are suddenly on McHale's plate with the increase in his office's responsibilities. "There is a range of relationships in that part of the world; we have many close friends and some nations that are problematic," he said.
He said he is very interested in the focused effort under way to reshape the character of the U.S. Southern Command. "Navy Adm. James Stavridis has shown great insight into the need for his combatant command to maintain its warfighting capability while expanding the character of SOUTHCOM far beyond the application of military force," McHale said. "In Central and South America, the battle of ideas is the main effort. Our traditional military power is in support. So, SOUTHCOM is being reorganized and reshaped to capture the additional elements of strategic communication, humanitarian assistance, health care and other competencies that retain and build upon that combatant command's more traditional warfighting command."
The hospital ship Comfort made a voyage through the region earlier this fall as a symbol of U.S. military engagement in the region. The United States wants to help as many people as possible in those regions with medical aid. "We want that to be a very important part of our identity as perceived by our partners in Central and South America," McHale said.
"Through the courage of men and women in uniform, the warfighting capacity of the United States has been well-established," he said. "But we are blessed that on a more routine basis we can communicate who we are and what we believe through humanitarian assistance."
While mission sets between North America and Central/South America are different, there is a certain logic behind putting the regions together, McHale said. U.S. Southern Command has an interagency set to it, and so does Northern Command, McHale said.
Northern Command works with federal, state and local agencies. In addition, it liaises with agencies in Canada and Mexico. Southern Command has the same experience with the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Justice, and other agencies.
McHale's office has daily contact with these offices and many others. The interagency cast to the commands, he said, will increase, and that will increase the need for a more disciplined interagency planning effort.
This is especially acute in the homeland defense portion of the office's responsibilities. "In my judgment, we have too many meetings and too few plans," he said. "The purpose of a meeting is to produce an outcome, and in homeland defense and civil support, the essential requirement of the interagency process has to be the production of very detailed, practical planning to deal with the consequences of a catastrophic contingency.
"I think the interagency process needs to move beyond the rhetoric of next week's interdepartmental discussion and onto a different plane of engagement that produces interagency deployment plans," McHale said.
The American people are more concerned with rapid and effective responses to emergencies than they are to the intricacies of a command-and-control system, McHale said. "Current law assigns the primary leadership role in the event of a catastrophic event to the Department of Homeland Security, and I think that is the right paradigm," he said.
"The American people cannot allow the capabilities inherent in civilian agencies to deteriorate. We fall into a trap if we allow our civilian capabilities to atrophy due to excessive reliance on military competencies," he said. "We need a partnership, and that partnership should be built on shared professionalism within and between the civilian and military organization of our government.
"Our founders realized that excessive reliance upon the military may achieve an operational success but ultimately will damage the civilian character of our country and our government," he added. "We hold as one of our bedrock principles the concept of civilian supremacy, and that concept is very much respected and adhered to in the Department of Defense."