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Lessons Learned - Or Only Identified?

By Kenneth Allard

Mobile homes shipped to Mississippi as emergency housing - but with the keys missing. And the now-notorious "ice odyssey" - in which truckloads of the stuff were apparently shipped all over the country but without coming anywhere close to those who desperately needed it.  As they try to figure out what went wrong with these and other bungled FEMA responses to the hurricanes, it may be easier for Congress and the administration to throw up their hands and simply place the military in charge of the whole thing. Diagnosing the real problem is much harder work and begins with a much tougher question: why is the military so much more successful at handling complex operations with multiple players than their civilian counterparts?
As a recent "media embed" with the 82nd Airborne Division in New Orleans, I witnessed part of the answer. It has to do with the military's unique management philosophy known as "battle command," which works well even when they are not in battle - or even in command. In New Orleans, that system helped align relief efforts that otherwise would have gotten in each other's way. 
If you knew what to look for, the underlying reasons behind this unexpected good news were on full display in a brigade operations center of the 82nd even as George Bush was speaking from nearby St. Louis cathedral. After watching the telecast, the brigade staff smoothly swung into a "situation update briefing," - compiling an overview of the significant events of the last 12 hours and setting overnight objectives. Action officers crisply summarized the status of key functional areas: communications, logistics, transportation, medical and even public affairs. Liaison officers from federal and civilian agencies participating in the rescue effort took notes as well as reporting on their own efforts. Similar briefings were taking place every twelve hours at division headquarters as well as in the joint task force headed by Lieutenant General Russ Honore.
The overall impact? Although the 82nd was not formally placed in charge, rescue efforts were harmonized simply because the military understood what had to be done - and had the organizational expertise to do it. This achievement was even more remarkable because the 82nd had almost no prior notice that one of its brigades was urgently required in New Orleans - the other two are already in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is probably no better evidence that an embedded culture of operational excellence produces its best results when dealing with the unexpected. That's why the battle command system was set up in the first place - and why those situation updates in New Orleans were only its most visible symbols.
The underlying processes are far more rigorous - beginning with a painstaking analysis of contingency plans.  Before he became President, General Eisenhower was famous for saying that plans were useless - but that planning was essential. Battle command assumes that contingency plans really are useless unless linked to the specific unit capabilities required to execute them - typically including such things as equipment and the necessary competencies to operate them. As you probably noticed during the government's response to both hurricanes, there are usually some gaps between requirements and capabilities. Recognizing those tendencies, the Army systematically works to eliminate such gaps through training, exercises and after-action reviews. These reviews provide the essential discipline in the system: a rigorous top-to bottom critique of what went right, what went wrong - and why.
Management experts will instantly recognize a classic "process improvement model." Experts or not, the average taxpayer will also recognize that such disciplined improvement has not always been embedded in Washington bureaucracies - in FEMA or anywhere else.  The Army was much the same until it recognized in the mid-1980's that its traditional operational culture had to change. Congress had just passed landmark legislation requiring the armed forces to make dramatic improvements in inter-service teamwork. With the post-Vietnam era over and a new generation of equipment on the way, generals like Carl Vuono and Max Thurman realized the right answer was not to train harder, but to train smarter. As General Vuono often pointed out, that meant moving systematically from being a well-intentioned group of volunteers in uniform to a disciplined force of professional soldiers.
The Army's training revolution consumed a decade: but ultimately paid dividends from Iraq to Bosnia and back again. Along the way, lessons were learned about how to manage complex, fast-moving operations and how to play well with others: other services, other agencies, even other nations.  No system in government is ever perfect, but how could FEMA and other homeland defense agencies take a page from this experience?
1.       Solve the inter-operability problem: John McCain and others have called attention to the persistent problem that - four years after 9/11 - first responders still deploy with communications systems that cannot talk to each other. The same problem plagued military communications for years: but frequent exercises, after-action reviews and focused improvements ultimately helped stimulate the solutions seen in Afghanistan. Army Special Forces and Air Force pilots sent there smoothly passed precision strike information back and forth - and quickly brought the Taliban to their knees. Solving the inter-operability problem among a plethora of federal and state agencies will take time and persistence at many different levels: why not use an approach that has shown it can succeed?
2.       Improve regional cooperation: In the same way that the military needed Congressional direction to improve joint teamwork, one of the lessons sure to be learned from this season of hurricanes is that FEMA's leverage can be enhanced by better inter-state cooperation. In responding to either disaster or terrorist attack, the problem, its effects and most of the solutions have an annoying way of crossing state lines. In a pinch, the American people have a heart-warming way of overcoming the worst of these obstacles. But why not use a disciplined "lessons learned" process to insure that such partnerships do not have to be forged anew in the heat of the next crisis?
3.       First set up the criteria, then evaluate the plans: President Bush was surely correct in his New Orleans speech to order FEMA to re-evaluate their disaster plans - but General Eisenhower's warning applies here as well.  It is hard to see how that effort can have its intended effect unless also accompanied by a "battle command" system linking plans, capabilities, exercises - and after-action reviews. Anything else and you run the risk of doing two things: forcing improvements that cannot be sustained - or improving one area at the expense of others. Like weaknesses in a storm surge, both flaws can be fatal when exposed to the pressures of the very emergencies FEMA was designed to manage.
Despite the best of intentions, many of our governmental responses to 9/11 were merely new bureaucratic forms of business as usual. Katrina was the result - and there we had the strategic warning no terrorist would ever give. Rather than more structural tinkering, what is clearly needed now is radically better management - using a proven model linking planning, exercises and disciplined execution. Although it seems unimaginable right now, the time will surely come when Katrine and Rita fade into distant nightmares. At that point, we will do well to remember some other lessons the military has learned through bitter experience: that you never know how much time you have until the balloon goes up again; and that the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.
Kenneth Allard is a former Army colonel and an MSNBC military analyst. His most recent book is Business As War.

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