December 16, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Preparation Means Planning Ahead of Time

Few wars were more unexpected. On April 2, 1982, the Argentine military occupied the British Falkland Islands. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered them taken back by force.

Years later, a British officer -- asked to cite the greatest lesson from the campaign that followed -- said, "That is simple. Never fight a no-plan war."

Britain's military had never seriously thought it would have to defend the Falklands. That fact alone almost cost it victory as it scrambled to fight an extraordinary battle at the bottom of the world.

To win a war witnessed mostly by penguins and sheep, British forces had to travel about 7,000 miles, engage in the biggest naval battle since World War II and conduct the most ambitious amphibious invasion since Inchon during the Korean War.

Supposedly America learned a similar lesson after 9/11. The White House wanted to make sure the country was prepared to prevent -- or at least handle and overcome -- the most serious catastrophes that might strike.

Never again, our leaders vowed, would the United States be caught short in the face of disaster again. Plans were ordered up, and the brainstorming began.

But managing mayhem proved a lot harder than it looked. The government couldn't manage to draft plans across federal agencies, let alone include the efforts of state and local governments and the private sector. In 2003, President Bush gave the newly established Department of Homeland Security the mission of herding all the cats.

Two years later, DHS released the National Planning Scenarios, 15 potential disasters that were to be the basis for a family of national plans on how to prepare for the worst, from natural catastrophes to nuclear attacks. They were issued less than a month before Hurricane Katrina, so it's no surprise nothing much had been done in time to deal with the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Katrina proved to the catastrophic equivalent of a "no-plan" war.

One might expect that Katrina would have shifted national disaster planning into overdrive. But, that didn't happen either. Today, federal agencies have completed almost none of the national plans.

Furthermore, few states have even begun to address their requirements for catastrophic planning. Most lack the expertise and resources to undertake large-scale disaster planning. Most focus available resources on "everyday" disaster response: Vermont must plan for snowstorms, Hawaii for volcanic eruptions and California for earthquakes. They're far less motivated to think about the wider menu of disasters, from biological plagues to dirty bombs.

Even the federal effort has ground to a halt. The cats don't like being herded. To make the job easier, the Department of Homeland Security tried grouping the 15 scenarios into a group of eight "scenario sets," but other federal agencies still complained there were too many planning requirements.

Homeland Security also established an Integrated Planning System that was supposed to provide a common approach to drafting disaster plans. Agencies balked at that as well.

In response to the disastrous state of disaster planning, the Obama White House has put the whole effort on hold while it "rethinks" the presidential directives requiring the agencies to do anything. That's not good news.

It took President Obama almost a year to make up his mind on Afghanistan. There's no telling when he might get around to making Washington start seriously planning to keep us safe in the face of national disasters.

Even if he were to decide tomorrow how he wants to plan for big-time disasters, little would get done. With the exception of the Department of Defense, no federal, state, local or private entity is really prepared to undertake catastrophic preparedness planning, let alone work together as a team to pull off a real national response.

As a result, when the next big catastrophe happens, America probably won't be any better prepared to deal with the death and destruction than it was after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina.

Hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in infrastructure are on the line. The best time to start seriously planning how to respond to our worst nightmares is now, before disaster strikes. Doing so, however, may be beyond our government's ability.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in the Washington Examiner