Homeland Defense:

U.S. Northern Command Has Made Progress but Needs to Address Force Allocation, Readiness Tracking Gaps, and Other Issues

GAO-08-251: Published: Apr 16, 2008. Publicly Released: Apr 16, 2008.

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It has been 5 years since the Department of Defense (DOD) established U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) to conduct homeland defense and civil support missions in the United States. Planning operations in the United States poses unique challenges for traditional military planning. GAO was asked to assess (1) the status of NORTHCOM's plans and the challenges it faces in planning and conducting operations, (2) the number, experience, and training of planning personnel, and (3) the extent to which NORTHCOM coordinates with other federal agencies. To do this, GAO reviewed available NORTHCOM plans, compared them to joint operational planning criteria, compared planning staff with those at other commands, and reviewed documentation and mechanisms for interagency coordination.

NORTHCOM has completed--or is in the process of revising--all of the major plans it is required to prepare for its homeland defense and civil support missions, but it faces a number of challenges in planning for and conducting these missions. NORTHCOM has completed its nine required plans. However, NORTHCOM does not know whether supporting plans that must be developed by other DOD organizations to assist NORTHCOM are complete because it has only recently begun to develop a process to track and assess these plans. NORTHCOM faces challenges in three key planning areas. First, NORTHCOM has difficulty identifying requirements for capabilities it may need in part because NORTHCOM does not have more detailed information from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or the states on the specific requirements needed from the military in the event of a disaster. Second, NORTHCOM has few regularly allocated forces and few capabilities allocated to its plans. DOD could allocate forces to NORTHCOM and assign specific forces to the command's plans, but this would not guarantee that those forces would not have to be deployed elsewhere. However, it would provide DOD and the NORTHCOM commander with a better basis on which to assess the risk that the command would be unable to successfully execute one or more of its missions. Third, NORTHCOM has difficulty monitoring the readiness of military units for its civil support mission because its plans do not specify mission tasks against which units can be assessed. NORTHCOM has undertaken mitigation efforts to address each challenge, and new national planning guidance may further assist NORTHCOM and DOD in addressing the challenges. Nevertheless, NORTHCOM and DOD can take additional actions to reduce the risk from these gaps and reduce the risk due to the overall uncertainty that stems from the nature of its mission. NORTHCOM has an adequate number of planning personnel, and the command is pursuing opportunities to expand the experience and training for staff needed to perform the command's planning function. NORTHCOM's planning staff is filled at over 96 percent of its authorized positions. NORTHCOM's military planning staff receives the same planning training and education as planners in other combatant commands. To draw upon experience in planning and conducting domestic operations, NORTHCOM has integrated National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard personnel into its headquarters staff. NORTHCOM has also developed a curriculum for required mission-related training courses. Although NORTHCOM has taken actions to improve coordination of its homeland defense and civil support plans and operations with federal agencies, it lacks formalized guidance and procedures--such as memorandums of understanding or charters--to help ensure that interagency coordination efforts or agreements that are reached can be fully relied on. This is important because responding to a major disaster in the United States--natural or man-made--is a shared responsibility of many government agencies with states often requiring federal assistance from DHS and DOD.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed that NORTHCOM should track unit readiness to complete civil support missions but said identifying units for all its civil support tasks is neither possible nor desirable. DOD also said that it would develop civil support specific metrics against which general purpose forces could be measured, rather than prepare specific force lists for individual plans that were not already required to have them. We agreed in our final report that this effort would help NORTHCOM and other DOD authorities to monitor the readiness of DOD forces to accomplish domestic missions. By April 2009, NORTHCOM developed mission-essential tasks for its approved civil support plans. In addition, by the end of calendar year 2008, DOD completed a pilot program with the states, the National Guard Bureau, and other key federal partners to develop a Civil Support Task List that will enable the DOD readiness system to capture the readiness of general purpose forces to fulfill civil support missions. These measures address the intent of GAO's recommendation and further institutionalize DOD's domestic mission throughout the force.

    Recommendation: To help NORTHCOM reduce the level of risk to its homeland defense and civil support planning efforts, in conjunction with the new national planning requirements of the National Response Framework and the national planning annex to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander of NORTHCOM, in consultation and coordination with the services, to develop mission-essential tasks for its civil support plans. Individual units required for these missions should be identified, and these mission-essential tasks should be included as part of DOD's readiness assessment systems in order to permit consistent tracking of readiness for specific elements of NORTHCOM's plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially agreed with the recommendation, stating that some specialized forces-- particularly for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) consequence management--should be allocated to NORTHCOM. In October 2008, DOD assigned the first operational CBRNE Consequence Management Response Force to NORTHCOM. DOD has continued to refine the CBRNE response structure, but has retained a standing allocation of forces to NORTHCOM. GAO's concern was that the Commander of NORTHCOM should have the flexibility and day-to-day readiness assurance that regularly assigned forces provide to other combatant commanders. These DOD actions contribute to providing such flexibility and assurance and address the intent of GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help NORTHCOM reduce the level of risk to its homeland defense and civil support planning efforts, in conjunction with the new national planning requirements of the National Response Framework and the national planning annex to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8, given the priority DOD places on homeland defense, the Secretary of Defense should assign forces to NORTHCOM--as is done for other combatant commands--as well as require NORTHCOM to develop dedicated time-phased force deployment data lists for each of its major plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with the intent of the recommendation and indicated that NORTHCOM would continue its efforts to track, coordinate, and assess supporting plans. By July 2008 NORTHCOM had in place a process to track the status, and coordinate the completion, of all supporting plans. Additionally, NORTHCOM updated a key command operating instruction that helps the command assess the extent to which supporting plans meet the intent and objectives of NORTHCOM's plans. Together, these steps address the intent of GAO's recommendation and should assist NORTHCOM in planning for and executing its homeland defense and civil support missions.

    Recommendation: To help NORTHCOM reduce the level of risk to its homeland defense and civil support planning efforts, in conjunction with the new national planning requirements of the National Response Framework and the national planning annex to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander of NORTHCOM to complete the process to track the status of all supporting plans, coordinate the completion of those plans by other commands and agencies, and assess the suitability of those plans to meet the intent and objectives of NORTHCOM's major plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with the intent of the recommendation and highlighted the interagency Integrated Planning System as the principal vehicle for providing a common language and process across planning components within and outside DOD. DOD has begun to incorporate further DOD-related direction in major planning documents, such as the Guidance for the Employment of the Force, but indicated that no further direction to US Northern Command should be provided. Changes to the interagency planning structure (Integrated Planning System) that was derived from Homeland Security Presidential Security Directive 8 were anticipated to provide further interagency planning guidance. A new Presidential Policy Directive 8 (PPD-8) was issued March 30, 2011. The new directive rescinded the previous directive and the annex that provided detailed guidance on planning. To execute PPD-8, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued two documents: the National Preparedness Goal in September 2011 and the National Preparedness System in November 2011. These documents provide guidance on standards and goals for all federal departments and agencies to conduct interagency operational planning. Taken as a whole, DOD's efforts and the issuance of both the National Preparedness Goal and National Preparedness System address the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help NORTHCOM and DOD better integrate their operational planning practices into the interagency and national preparedness structure, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Commander of NORTHCOM and other appropriate federal agencies, should develop clear guidance and procedures for interagency planning efforts, including appropriate memorandums of understanding and charters for interagency planning groups. This should be done in conjunction with the integrated planning system required in the national planning annex to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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