Harvey Tests Post-Katrina Military Response Reforms

By Admiral James 'Sandy' Winnefeld

Admiral Winnefeld served for 37 years in the United States Navy. He retired in 2015 after serving four years as the ninth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the United States' number two ranking military officer. As a flag officer, he commanded the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, NATO Joint Command Lisbon, Striking and Support Forces NATO, the United States Sixth Fleet, United States Northern Command, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, also known as NORAD.  Admiral Winnefeld is a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Not since Katrina has the United States been struck by a hurricane as devastating as Harvey. Both inflicted unprecedented damage from floods and wind. Harvey and Katrina differ, however, in a crucial respect: response operations today reflect a little-known transformation in the way the U.S. military serves at home.

Citizens, first responders and government agencies at all levels (including FEMA) deserve great credit for saving lives in Harvey. Electric utilities and water systems are doing a remarkable job restoring essential services in the face of punishing conditions. So, too, are the vital evacuation and other support operations now being conducted by over ten thousand soldiers and airmen at the request of civilian authorities.

Those military support operations stand in stark contrast to the tangled mess that emerged in Katrina. The 2005 hurricane revealed an embarrassing seam between state and federal governments that had festered for years and then worsened amid the finger-pointing in Katrina’s aftermath. The problem: no system existed to coordinate the work of state National Guard forces (commanded by state governors) with supporting federal troops (commanded, ultimately, by the president).

Reports by the Bush administration and Congress found that the lack of unity of effort between state and federal military forces hobbled response operations precisely when they were most needed to save lives.  But governors and federal leaders remained at loggerheads for five years after Katrina about who would give up authority over their respective troops in future catastrophes.

The seams were understandable. On the one hand, governors dreaded the prospect of federal forces upstaging them within their own states, and the National Guard was understandably adamant that they know their states better than anyone else. Moreover, the Guard has law enforcement authorities federal forces lack under all but the most exceptional circumstances.  On the other hand, federal forces were daunted by the legal and constitutional—to say nothing of the cultural—fault lines associated with a governor essentially commanding federal forces. Moreover, the active duty component of federal forces can bring vast capability to bear on a problem.

The answer turned out to be surprisingly simple. A small team of governors and National Guard generals reached out to their federal counterparts to discuss a creative new approach. Rather than have either governors or the president give up their authorities, both would agree to establish “dual status commanders,” aligned atop appropriate supporting staffs, in future disasters. A series of meetings was held between the leaders within the active component and the National Guard, beginning with an exploratory discussion at the headquarters of United States Northern Command (NORTHCOM) in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  These resulted in development of a set of processes and lines of authority that were acceptable to both sides.

The first dual status commanders, who are specially trained for this unique role by NORTHCOM and the National Guard Bureau, were qualified in 2010. When activated, they exercise simultaneous control over both state and federal military forces but report up separate chains of command to both an affected governor, and through the secretary of defense, the president.  Unity of command—which is a key principle in military operations—is maintained at the commander’s level.  Dual status commanders will—so the theory goes—be empowered to steer clear of the pitfalls of Katrina, and enable military personnel to more effectively support civilian authorities in even the worst disasters.

That theory is now reality in Texas. At the request of Texas Governor Gregg Abbott, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis approved the appointment of a dual status commander for the response to Harvey. Military operations are now going forward in a unified way that would have gratified one of the authors of the concept – Air Force Major General Tim Lowenberg, who passed away just as the newly-appointed commander began leading life-saving operations in Houston and beyond.

However, this is no time to sit back and offer congratulations. Difficult challenges for response and recovery lie ahead for the region Harvey struck. Challenges also exist in building preparedness for catastrophes to come, whether caused by major earthquakes, or cyberattacks inflicted by Russia, or other potential adversaries. Defense support to civilian authorities may well be essential in such events. We should accelerate planning now to determine how dual status commanders can help lead such support operations, in ways that are both effective and consistent with the United States Constitution.

This is an all-too-rare good news story in government. Despite their real and sometimes bitter differences over the emotional and structurally difficult topic of domestic support of civil authorities, the National Guard and Active Component reached a very workable compromise solution. Our highly fractured nation and its elected government would do well to emulate what was accomplished seven years ago around a table in Colorado.

Dr. Paul Stockton served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs from 2009-2013.  Admiral Sandy Winnefeld served as the Commander, United States NORTHERN Command in 2010-2011, and retired as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  General Craig McKinley served as the 26th Chief of the National Guard Bureau from 2008-2012.  Among other contributors, all three were involved in the creation of the Dual Status Commander concept.

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