On Tuesday, Wired chastised the New York Army National Guard for its decision to continue to send 450 guardsmen to a training exercise in Missouri despite the events of Hurricane Sandy.
The article writes: “It seemed like a good use of troops—until their fellow guardsmen were suddenly called in to help actual New Yorkers.” Indeed, that’s what many Americans were surely thinking as they continued through Wired’s three-page attempted exposé. The full details, however, actually tell a very different story.
The troops that were to be sent to participate in the exercise aren’t just any National Guard troops. They are part of one of the nation’s 10 Homeland Response Forces (HRFs), a group of soldiers and airmen focused specifically on response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high explosive (CBRNE) attack—not natural disasters.
As part of a program called “Vigilant Guard,” the New York HRF was to participate in its first ever out-of-state exercise to train for search and rescue, decontamination, and other CBRNE responses. Such training is essential to ensuring that the nation’s HRFs are prepared and capable to respond in the event of a CBRNE attack not only in New York but throughout the U.S.
Furthermore, New York and the broader East Coast already had sufficient National Guard forces at hand. In response to the storm, more than 85,000 National Guard troops had been put on alert. Given the scope of the disaster, only a fraction of these troops—roughly 12,000—have been required for the response and called to active duty. It’s hard to see, then, what benefit an additional 450 troops offers the people of New York.
Instead of pressuring the New York National Guard into diverting troops from crucial training, perhaps Wired should have pointed out the real issue at hand here. It’s not that New York’s HRF was to be sent to Missouri in the wake of Sandy but that, despite having 10 HRFs, U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM)—the military command charged with responding in the event of a CBRNE attack—does not have the resources or capacity to respond to such a disaster.
Certainly the HRFs, operating under command of state governors, have their benefits. As former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul McHale explains: “In the U.S. federal system of government, it is essential that the individual governors have well-trained, well-equipped military forces, subject to their immediate command and available for rapid and effective response to any major disaster which might occur within their state borders.”
Yet, like in Hurricane Sandy, damage from a CBRNE attack on the U.S. would likely be spread across multiple states. In that case, “the President also needs to be able to order [federal forces to respond]…in support of the governors and their states.” That means NORTHCOM should be given the resources it needs to be prepared.
Even in the wake of the Hurricane Sandy response, an attack could occur tomorrow. The U.S. should be prepared.