Improving Coastal Disaster Response Capabilities Without Diminishing Military Readiness

By Jamey Kane

Introduction The United States faces a growing threat from Coastal Disasters (CDs). CDs, which include tropical cyclones (hurricanes) and tsunamis, are also an increasing threat to other countries. Research indicates climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones (IPCC 2018). In addition, a trend of growing population density means more people and property will be in harm’s way (Neumann 2015). In the past, the U.S. military has brought its unique capabilities to bear in assisting with relief operations for the most severe CDs, both in the U.S. and internationally; as the threat increases in the future, this responsibility will become a growing drain on military readiness. Our status quo approach to CD response is for the military to be involved on an ad hoc basis in the worst CDs here and abroad, but my analysis indicates this will become unsustainable in the future. To improve U.S. CD response, I propose the creation of a Coastal Disaster Relief Force (CDRF) within the Department of Defense (DoD). The CDRF will be centered around the USS Nassau (LHA 4) and the USS Peleliu (LHA 5), two amphibious assault ships currently in inactive reserve (U.S. Navy 2016). These would be forward deployed bases of operations for helicopters, supplies, and personnel, and provide medical facilities and communications that would greatly increase the effectiveness of CD relief operations. An alternative would be the creation of the CDRF as a civilian force that partners with the DoD, including using military bases. Although this would seem to avoid militarizing disaster relief and the accompanying concerns (cf. Harris 2002; Pugh 2002), my analysis indicates the DoD option is more cost effective, as the military already possesses the personnel, equipment, and culture that will make the CDRF successful.

Background CDs are a large and growing threat to Americans and others around the world. 2017 was a particularly bad year, with three hurricanes causing a combined $265 billion worth of property damage (NOAA 2018). Hurricane Maria, now considered the deadliest hurricane to affect the U.S. in living memory, caused an estimated 2,975 deaths in Puerto Rico (Kiely 2018), Hurricane Katrina’s death toll was 1,833 across five states (CNN Fast Facts 2018), and the 2004 Asian (or Boxing Day) Tsunami “kill[ed] more than 230,000 people across 14 countries” (Australian Broadcasting Company 2014). In addition to the high cost in lives and money, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2018 special report finds “trends in intensity and frequency of some climate and weather extremes have been detected over time spans during which about 0.5°C of global warming occurred” (IPCC 2018). 

The military has a history of being involved in responding to CDs. While Coast Guard and National Guard units are regularly involved, the Navy and Marine Corps are also called upon to assist in the most serious emergencies. The Navy committed 16 ships and 63 aircraft to relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina (an amphibious assault ship, similar to the Tarawa class ships proposed for the CDRF, served as the headquarters for the relief effort) (DiRienzo III 2015). They were joined by over 1,000 Marines and another 15 helicopters. The military’s response to the 2004 Asian Tsunami, a disaster which unfolded over a wider area, was even larger, with 25 Navy ships, over 100 aircraft, and 15,000 troops (Dille 2005). This operation also included an amphibious assault ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard. Utilizing the military in this way is an attractive option for policymakers as the military’s engineering expertise, global facilities and forward deployment, mobility, experience with search and rescue, communications, medical capabilities, professionalism, and training to operate in the absence of infrastructure are both well suited to CDs and are also a nearly unique combination. Current policy involves utilizing military capabilities for CD relief in an ad hoc fashion and only as need dictates, which presents a tradeoff with military readiness. This raises the question of whether institutionalizing a military—or military style—CD response force would be an effective way of improving disaster relief efforts while not compromising military readiness. This analysis will consider creating the CDRF with an Atlantic/Caribbean unit constituted around the Nassau and an Indo-Pacific unit constituted around the Peleliu, or an analogous civilian force using the same equipment.

Figure 1: Tropical Cyclone Formation with Mean Tracks 

Source: National Hurricane Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2015.

As the above image demonstrates, the forward deployment of the CDRF at U.S. military bases in the southeastern U.S. for the Nassau and in Guam for the Peleliu would place them in close proximity to the areas most likely to be affected by tropical cyclones. Other U.S. Navy bases could be used on a temporary basis in support of a relief operation, or if one of the home bases faces a direct tropical cyclone threat. Nassau would also be responsible for tropical cyclones affecting the eastern Pacific, transiting the Panama Canal. Outside tropical cyclone season, the Nassau could be deployed to a Navy base in the Pacific to better prepare for the threat of a tsunami along the Ring of Fire.

Analysis The status quo of ad hoc military responses to the worst CDs has proven cost effective in the past, as extreme CDs have been rare events. As such, investment in a dedicated force for CD response was unnecessary, and devoting resources to ad hoc responses only rarely posed any threat to the U.S. military’s readiness However, Elleman (2007) includes descriptions from officials of the high cost of U.S. tsunami relief operations, which came at a time of rising expenditure and troop requirements for the Iraq War. He also notes the accelerated pace of relief operations relative to a normal deployment, and the increased stress on the personnel. Given the increasing risk and cost of CDs described above, I estimate that the status quo will become increasingly costly and have a greater and more regular impact on military readiness.

Alternatively, creation of a CDRF using Nassau and Peleliu would significantly improve CD response, as the CDRF would be able to rapidly respond with trained personnel, necessary equipment, and an organizational culture that is designed to operate in conditions where infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed — for example, Krouse (2018) describes how hurricanes damage cell phone service. The lack of these resources hampers CD responses, as seen from the comments of volunteer emergency responder Sherry Fox in McCammon (2018). Nassau and Peleliu can each carry 35 helicopters (Sherman 1999), which Elleman identified as being a significant contribution of the Navy’s response to the 2004 Asian Tsunami, particularly for search and rescue and delivery of supplies (Elleman 2007). In addition, their well decks can accommodate various types of landing craft used by the Marines, which provide another option for water rescues and delivering relief supplies. Sherman (1999) also notes the ships’ satellite communications systems, supply storage rooms, and well-equipped medical facilities, which he describes as “equivalent to the nation’s finest local hospitals.”  These are crucial capabilities in disaster zones, as cell networks are often down, hospitals may be damaged or inaccessible, and food, water, and other supplies are urgently needed. The military’s training, professionalism, and ‘can do’ ethos would also contribute to effectiveness. The specialized skills the military brings to disaster relief, including the engineering skills of the Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees), would also contribute to the high level of effectiveness of the CDRF. Master of Arms (MA) personnel—which function as the Navy’s police force (Navy 2020)—would be employed to provide security for the CDRF and potentially to maintain order in the disaster zone. 

The role of MA personnel demonstrates an additional risk of this policy alternative, as use of military personnel for law enforcement functions in the U.S. falls afoul of the Posse Comitatus Act (Larson 2001). This is symptomatic of the general concern about the use of military assets in relief operations that Harris (2002) and Pugh (2002) describe. To resolve these concerns, I recommend DoD seek a legislative change from Congress to provide a narrow exception to Posse Comitatus for the CDRF when it is responding to a CD, in addition to dedicated funding for it. Additionally, the CDRF should only be involved at the request of the local jurisdiction — domestically, by the state government, and internationally, by foreign governments. Such a request would either mitigate the concern or place the responsibility for CDRF involvement in the hands of the local government. This, in combination with the gratitude of the affected population for an effective response, should resolve the issue.

Alternatively, a civilian force that uses the equipment proposed for the CDRF, as well as adopts the aspects of the military’s ethos appropriate to CD response, could go even further in eliminating concerns about military involvement. This would obviate concerns about impact on military readiness, as it would be separate from DoD. A civilian force may also bring in new recruits eager to assist with CD relief but uncomfortable with military service, expanding the talent pool the CDRF could draw from. However, as the CDRF would still use military equipment and bases, the separation from the military could appear superficial, leading some to see a civilian CDRF response as a military intervention by stealth, which risks implying nefarious intent. Further, and of greater concern, it could not draw on the military’s existing systems for recruitment, budgeting, and training, without compromising its independence — the very reason for separating it from the military. Duplicating these systems for a civilian CDRF would be a significant additional cost in creating and maintaining the force, and it may require a long period to match to the level of effectiveness of the existing system.

Recommendation I recommend the creation of a CDRF within the DoD and centered around Nassau and Peleliu, as this option increases the effectiveness of CD response and, with Congressional action plus permission from the local authorities, best resolves the accompanying concerns about the militarization of CD relief. The military’s capabilities, training, and ethos are well suited to the needs of CD responders, and forward deployment of a dedicated CDRF allows them to be quickly brought to bear in the event of a CD, without the impact on military readiness that an ad hoc response risks. As Nassau and Peleliu are in inactive reserve, providing them to the CDRF would not affect the Navy’s ability to protect the U.S. against military threats. Though creation of a CDRF would be costly, the increasing cost of CDs — particularly given the impacts of global climate change — make this a worthwhile investment in protecting Americans and people affected by CDs around the world. Though a civilian CDRF may resolve the legitimate concerns about militarizing disaster relief, I find that a DoD CDRF could do so as well with the right policies, and could do so more cost-effectively. The fixed costs of creating and maintaining a CDRF may be greater than the financial costs incurred from ad hoc responses, but are justified by the improvement to CD response and the lack of impact on military readiness.


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