What can the US strategy for homeland defence teach us?

Based on previous Defence white papers, this year’s white paper will, among other things, address the question of how the Australian Defence Organisation (ADO) should support Australian civil authorities in peacetime.

Areas where the ADO’s responsibilities and those of other government agencies overlap include border security, protection for major events, counterterrorism, emergency response to natural disasters, and marine search and rescue. This year’s white paper writers would benefit from reading the US Department of Defense’s Strategy for Homeland Defense and Defense Support of Civil Authorities (PDF).

The strategy was released recently, without fanfare, under of the signature of former US Secretary of Defense Panetta—probably one of his last policy pronouncements as SECDEF. The new policy establishes the US DoD’s priorities in the areas of ‘homeland defense’ and ‘defense support for civil authorities’ through to 2020.

It’s a rich document that provides many insights into US thinking. Generally consistent with the previous (2005) strategy (PDF), it nevertheless shows some development in a few themes that are instructive for Australia.

While much briefer than the earlier version, it confirms the distinction between ‘homeland defense’ (against external conventional and asymmetric threats) as a primary Defense mission, and ‘defense support for civil authorities’, as a secondary mission.

In Australian parlance, the term ‘homeland defense’ is more aligned with defence of Australia and ‘defense support for civil authorities’ is more like our Defence assistance to the civil community and Defence Force aid to civilian authorities.

One area in which the strategy demonstrates progress is in the mechanisms for employing all US military resources—regular and reserve—for roles within the homeland. This is a complex issue for the US, fraught with convoluted laws and equities between the state national guards and federal military (both active duty and reserve).

The strategy emphasises the use of ‘dual-status commanders’—state national guardsmen or federal officers who are authorised to command both national guard and federal military forces in a crisis. This underscores quiet legislative developments pursued methodically since 9/11 to make the application of US military resources in the homeland—whatever their origin—much more efficient.

The new strategy also sustains the priority focus on military support to domestic CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives) incidents. This has long been a major theme of US homeland security, with its origins well before 9/11 in the 1996 Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act.

The strategy refers to some new reserve force structure for CBRNE response, developed since the 2005 version. Interestingly, the high-yield explosive aspect of CBRNE has been de-emphasised relative to the earlier strategy. But DoD’s hard-earned new expertise in dealing with improvised explosive devices is noted as a major contribution that must be preserved and made available to support civilian agencies in the homeland.

The strategy points out that public expectations of a timely and effective Defense response to a homeland security threat or crisis have grown over the past decade, and cites recent natural disasters as examples.

Lessons from hurricanes Katrina and Sandy (that left eight million people without electricity and underscored the vulnerability of the US power grid) have framed the US approach to military–civil support roles. The strategy notes that the obvious capacity, capabilities, training, and professionalism of the DoD mean that the US public will expect it to play a prominent supporting role in response efforts—an expectation that the Defense establishment cannot afford to disappoint. The strategy doesn’t limit that expectation to the uniformed services, but extends it to all agencies for the DoD.

But what’s interesting in the new strategy is a recognition of what it calls ‘complex catastrophes’, where the concentration of population in major urban areas and the interconnected nature of critical infrastructures have combined to ‘fundamentally alter the scope and scale of “worst case” incidents for which DoD might be called upon to provide civil support’.

The strategy points out that:

This environment creates the potential for complex catastrophes, with effects that would qualitatively and quantitatively exceed those experienced to date. In such events, the demand for Defense Support for Civil Authorities would be unprecedented. Meeting this demand would be especially challenging if a cyber attack or other disruption of the electrical power grid creates cascading failures of critical infrastructure, threatening lives and greatly complicating DoD response operations.

Australia should take note of the extent to which its major security partner has taken to heart threats to the homeland, and has made significant institutional adjustment to its Defense establishment in order to address them. Such things are much more difficult for the US, given the relationships and orthodoxies that affect the domestic application of military resources, yet something in the US calculus has caused it to grasp that nettle.

This year’s Defence white paper should set out the ADO’s role in domestic security. To take two examples. First, we don’t have a process for determining the capability requirements for Defence assistance to civilian agencies. Such a process would make it easier for Defence to integrate planning and operational capabilities for supporting civil authorities at home. Second, there’s still a degree of ‘ad-hocery’ when it comes to Defence supporting special events, such as next year’s G20 in Brisbane. Given the unpredictability of the gaps between such events and the risk of losing important corporate knowledge in the interim, formalised Defence special-event support ‘packages’, with supporting doctrine, might be an option to make planning easier for both the ADO and the supported jurisdiction.

Over six years ago we argued that the Australian community is very supportive of using the ADO (in particular, the ADF) in domestic missions. Public opinion will continue to support sensible steps by Defence to increase its involvement in these roles.

These missions shouldn’t be seen by Defence as ‘second eleven’ tasks: where the ADF performs poorly in supporting our civil authorities, it’ll be highly damaging to its relationship with the Australian people.

Andrew Smith recently served as director of United States Central Command’s Combined Planning Group and is now an independent researcher based in the US. Anthony Bergin is deputy director at ASPI.