We’ve had a lot of discussion in the comments over the past couple of weeks about not just what is going on with the disaster response, emergency management, and/or humanitarian assistance missions in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, but also what exactly the US military’s role is. The US military is currently involved in assisting with all three components of the response: disaster response, emergency management, and humanitarian assistance. They are specifically doing so through what is called Defense Support of Civil Authorities, which is abbreviated as DSCA and pronounced as disca.
Defense support of civil authorities (DSCA) is support provided by federal military forces, Department of Defense (DOD) civilians, DOD contract personnel, DOD component assets, and National Guard (NG) forces (when the Secretary of Defense [SecDef], in coordination with the governors of the affected states, elects and requests to use those forces in Title 32, United States Code, status or when federalized) in response to requests for assistance from civil authorities for domestic emergencies, law enforcement support, and other domestic activities, or from qualifying entities for special events.
DSCA in the US presents a unique challenge based on the history of the country and the interaction of the federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments and private and nonprofit organizations. These relationships establish the multiple layers and mutually reinforcing structures throughout the state and territorial governments for interaction based on the US Constitution, as well as on common law and traditional relationships.
US Army North has been mobilized as the Joint Land Force Component Command (JFLCC) to coordinate the US military response. This includes Task Force 51*, which is contingency command post. Specifically:
TF-51 is Army North’s contingency command post and conducts Defense Support of Civil Authority (DSCA), homeland defense and theater security cooperation in order to promote the defense and security of the United States
There are also US Army Corps of Engineers, US Army Civil Affairs, and US Army National Guard – primarily from the Puerto Rico National Guard, as well as US Marine Corps personnel from the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group/26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (USS Kearsarge, USS Arlington, and USS Oak Hill) plussed up with USS Wasp, US Coast Guard Sailors, and the USNS Comfort on site assisting. There are also civilian personnel from a variety of US government civilian agencies.
The Commanding General of US Army North is not actually in charge of the response. Rather a FEMA executive on site is responsible. Unfortunately everyone defaults to “the US military is there, there’s a 3 star commander on site, the US military is in charge”. This is not actually the case. Because of how the news media has covered things since 9-11 everyone expects the military not only to perform, but to work miracles. This is largely a result of the US military being the only US governmental institution that is viewed positively by a majority of Americans. Whether the result of good public relations, the concerted effort not to treat uniformed personnel returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom the popular perception about the way returning Vietnam veterans were treated**, or a combination of the two, there is a pervasive belief among elected and appointed officials, as well as the US citizenry that the US military can do anything and everything. This combined with the significant divide that has grown between the All Volunteer Force and the rest of Americans, as well as a general lack of knowledge and understanding about what the US military does and does not do, can and cannot do, all contributes to the default belief that if the US military has responded, then it is in charge. So if things aren’t going well, then someone in uniform must be screwing up.
It is important to remember that LTG Buchanan, the Commanding General of US Army North, is not the military governor of PR and that martial law hasn’t been declared. In this mission he and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines under his command actually work for Michael Byrne, who is the Federal Coordinating Officer for Puerto Rico. While it is absolutely correct to question exactly what is going on with the response to the crises in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, it is important to remember who is running the show – FEMA – and who isn’t – the US military. Moreover, we don’t know what the Memorandum of Agreement is between FEMA/DHS and US Army North/Department of the Army that delineates who is doing what in regard to the Federal response to the crises in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands as it is not posted anywhere public facing. Here’s an example of a Memorandum of Agreement between FEMA and the US Army Corps of Engineers from 2008 to give you an idea of what they look like. Here’s the manual for US military support to FEMA in these types of situations to give you some idea of how things should go.
That doesn’t make what we’re seeing in news reports and eye witness reports on social media about the inadequacy of the response okay. It just means that other than knowing that things aren’t going well, despite official pronouncements from various parties in DC, we don’t really know why they’re not going well. As in the root causes. Is the Memorandum of Agreement too limiting? Has too little resources, specifically actual food, water, clothing, medical supplies been queued up? Or delivered on site? Are there too few personnel on site when accounting for US civilian and military personnel? All of these are legitimate questions. But just because the US military on site gets all the press, and just because we’ve become conditioned to assume that they are both hyper-competent and always in charge wherever they are deployed, this is not always the case. And it is certainly not the case in the US response to the hurricane created crises in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
* Full disclosure: the Chief of Staff for Task Force 51 is my former student from my last year (academic year 2014) assigned at USAWC. I have not been commissioned by him, anyone else at the Joint Force Land Component Command in Puerto Rico, or anyone else in the US military to write this post.
** There is a popular perception in the US that returning vets from Vietnam were treated poorly by the American public. In terms of actual history this isn’t exactly what happened, and there are a lot of nuances, but this is the popular perception.