March 20, 2006
Commission recommends bigger role for NorthCom
By Gordon Lubold and Gordon Trowbridge
Times staff writers
A new independent commission created to look at how the military can respond better to natural disasters may recommend expanding the role of U.S. Northern Command and make it easier for the Pentagon to call up reservists.
Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, who leads the commission, said the group will take a long look at the challenges the reserve and National Guard face in responding to disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
Created by Congress last year, the commission is supposed to study ways in which the reserve and Guard — the former normally run by the federal government and the latter by state governments — could be better integrated and used, as well as organized, trained, equipped and funded.
The commission also will review the adequacy of reservists’ pay and benefits, including the availability of health-care benefits and health insurance.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed the inability of federal and state agencies to coordinate their efforts, and exposed, according to a White House report released in late February, the fact that no one was truly in charge.
The Guard in each state is commanded by that state’s governor, but the reserve belongs to the Defense Department, which means reservists generally fall under Northern Command, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Though the commission has yet to reach any solid conclusions, one thing appears clear: Reservists will be used more often than in their traditional “weekend warrior” role of the past, and the services will look for ways to make it easier to tap them when help is needed.
Throughout the first two days of the commission’s hearings, representatives from the Defense Department and the services emphasized that they no longer see the reserve components as a massive strategic reserve only for use in major wars.
Their focus, they said, is on making reservists more “accessible” — that is, easier to call up, whether to the home front or to the battle front.
All four service vice chiefs, testifying March 9, said the traditional drill regime for reservists — one weekend a month, two weeks a year, 39 days of total annual service unless mobilized — is no longer appropriate in a world in which reservists need to be fully trained for deployment at a moment’s notice.
“I think we need to adjust the 39 days,” said Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s second-ranking officer. “We’ve got to have the authority to adjust.”
Cody and Gen. Robert Magnus, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, also suggested the military drop policies barring involuntary mobilization of reservists for more than 24 months under the current presidential emergency declaration. Legally, they said, the services are barred only from mobilizing troops for 24 consecutive months, but the Pentagon has in practice limited mobilization to 24 months total.
Magnus argued that the policy, designed to ease the burden on reservists, actually puts those who want to serve longer in an unfair position. “It would be a lot harder for me to go home and tell my wife I had volunteered to go to war than to tell her I had been mobilized to go to war,” he said.
Perhaps of more concern to the services is their complaint that the 24-month policy damages unit cohesion for those units mobilized for a second or third combat tour.
“If 60 percent of that battalion deployed the first time, maybe I can only mobilize 40 percent,” Cody said. That forces the Army to borrow soldiers from other units to complete the deploying unit, undermining their ability to fight as a team.
At some points, commissioners seemed to question whether the military’s plans for the reserves are sustainable.
The Army, for instance, plans to ask reservists to deploy for one year out of every six. But putting a reservist on the battlefield in Iraq for a year now requires as much as 18 months on active duty, factoring in pre-deployment and demobilization periods.
Asked by commissioners if that is sustainable in the long term, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs Thomas Hall said: “The feedback from employers is no. I find no one who thinks 18 months, that they could sustain that.”
The 13-member Commission on the National Guard and Reserve will file a preliminary report to Congress in about three months with its initial findings.
Fresh look at NorthCom
The commission also will take a broader look at Northern Command, created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to coordinate all aspects of homeland defense.
“I think our commission has to take a very hard look at the composition of Northern Command and so does the White House,” said Punaro, a Vietnam veteran who last served as commander of the Corps’ 4th Marine Division, a reserve unit.
He said Northern Command is “a very important” command and is capable of conducting many “mission essential” tasks.
But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bristled at the notion that the new commission could suggest broader responsibility for Northern Command before having even its first formal meeting. Rumsfeld said he and Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, are supposed to respond to the White House on the federal post-Katrina response but have yet to do so.
“The issue isn’t NorthCom versus the National Guard, active versus reserve or something like that,” Rumsfeld told defense reporters March 7. “We were asked to come back to them with any recommendation we might have as to that question, that very question.”
But the White House’s own report on Katrina indicates a broader command authority needs to be explored. The “lessons learned” report pointed out that Northern Command only had responsibility for less than half the military forces across the Gulf Coast disaster region.
“For the first two days of Katrina response operations, [Northern Command] did not have situational awareness of what forces the National Guard had on the ground,” the White House report said.
As a result, Joint Task Force-Katrina “could not operate at full efficiency” when it lacked the ability to command more than half the military forces across the disaster area.
“Neither the Louisiana National Guard nor JTF-Katrina had a good sense for where each other’s forces were located or what they were doing,” the White House report said. “This resulted in confusion over roles and responsibilities between National Guard and federal forces and highlights the need for a more unified command structure.”