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September 02, 2005

Would a Reconstruction Corps Have Made a Difference in New Orleans?

As many of you know, I have written many posts about the need for a new branch of the military -- a Reconstruction Corps -- that would be designed and trained to perform less than combat military operations. Chief among these would be disaster relief, rebuilding damaged infrastructure and peacekeeping. These forces would be under military discipline, and part of the Department of Defense, but would focus entirely on their mission of humanitarian aid and reconstruction. Unlike nearly all other aid organizations, they would have their own, dedicated (the military term for this is "organic") logistical resources, including airlift, heavy transport equipment that could travel on unimproved (or damaged) roads, and construction equipment.

My original thoughts about the need for this new type of military force were prompted by the situation in Iraq, where our military quickly demolished conventional military resistance, but stumbled badly in managing the reconstruction of Iraqi infrastructure and civil society. However, the current disaster in New Orleans illustrates the important role that such a federal agency could play in terms of protecting lives and property here in the US.

The main advantage of a dedicated branch of the armed services devoted to reconstruction and emergency aid is that career officers in this field would continually plan and train for likely crisis situations, either at home or abroad. When an actual disaster occurred, the several days (or weeks) needed to 1) assess the situation, 2) identify assets that are needed (and available) to help, 3) sequence and prioritize transportation of assets and supplies to the effected area, and 4) develop an appropriate command and control structure to coordinate all of the above would be compressed dramatically. Instead, officers would dust off the latest version of the plan for responding to, say, a massive earthquake in a Japanese city, or a hurricane strike on a US city, or a massive terrorist attack using radiological weapons, and then go to work making it happen. In each case, the difficult and time consuming task of figuring out what you need, where to get it, and in what order to send it would have been already accomplished. Even more important, the units and individuals needed to implement this plan would have already practiced their tasks, and identified any potential problems that would be likely to arise.

Sure, FEMA is supposed to be responsible for this type of activity in the US, but they are primarily bureaucrats whose main focus is on sending in teams to fill out forms for federal disaster aid payments after the fact. They don't have their own fleets of vehicles (or a prearranged system for calling on vehicles and equipment belonging to other parts of the federal government or private contractors), and they don't have an experienced staff that is trained and equipped to manage the huge logistical challenge of feeding and caring for hundreds of thousands of people in a disaster area.

Similarly, National Guard units have limited training schedules (because, after all, they are part-time soldiers) and nearly all of this training time is devoted to practicing the roles their units would play if they were mobilized into the active duty military for combat operations. They have vehicles and trained men and women to operate and maintain them, but they lack a dedicated planning function and officer corps tasked with the single mission of coping with natural or man-made disasters. (And as we have seen in New Orleans, planning and speedy execution are critical to saving lives in a major crisis that overwhelms civilian or local resources.)

You can read more details of how a Reconstruction Corps might work in these posts: Nov02, Apr03, Jul03, and May05. Maybe one of the positive legacies of the Katrina disaster may be the development of an organization that can effectively mitigate future catastrophes..

September 2, 2005 at 08:54 AM | Permalink

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