The late year hurricane that assaulted the East Coast provided a reason to consider one of the most important roles of the U.S. military: support to civil authorities. In the United States, the first line of defense against natural disasters is provided by “first responders,” local fire, police and emergency services. Immediately behind them are reinforcements provided by the various components of the Department of Homeland Security, most notably the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard.
Civil agencies can do a lot to mitigate the impact of storms, earthquakes and other natural disasters. But they have their limits. That is when the military comes into play, particular the National Guard. The National Guard maintains a unique “dual status” — with both state and federal roles and missions. This dual status is rooted in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. Unless called into federal service, the National Guard operates under Title 32 of the Federal Code, taking orders from their state’s governor through the Adjutant General. The Army National Guard is the repository of much of the engineering, transportation, emergency communications, water purification and medical support capability for the entire Army. The Air Guard operates C-130 transport aircraft and HH-60 helicopters which are extremely useful in moving supplies, rescuing civilians and conducting reconnaissance missions.
Even before Hurricane Sandy hit, National Guard armories were opened as shelters. National Guard units were deployed to provide immediate search and rescue capabilities for cities and towns in the hurricane’s path. In addition, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also appointed so-called “dual status commanders” — authorized to direct both federal troops and state National Guard forces — to coordinate military response efforts in Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. At first light this morning, National Guard units were on the roads, looking for victims and clearing debris.
It is ironic that the National Guard is likely to be particularly hard hit by proposed defense budget cuts. The Active Component has already taken significant reductions with more in the offing. Further reductions will not only diminish the military’s rapid response capability but impair training and force generation. If sequestration occurs, the Pentagon will have to make major cuts to the National Guard. This will increase the risk both to national and domestic security.