Effective national defense rests to a great extent on threat analysis and planning. That effort involves not only contingency planning, but an ongoing commitment to constant threat response exercises and “war gaming” against the threats. In the better exercises a good deal of effort is given to simulations and testing of command and control during the crisis. Game theory and other exercise tools expose weaknesses and highlight the changes required to realistically deal with the threats. The tools and practices for this are well understood and readily available. Such exercises have been standard practices for decades.
The American problem is that the process repeatedly experiences a systemic failure. It fails not because the threats are not identified, not because the exercises are not conducted, not because the necessary responses are unclear or not documented and communicated. It fails because the last step in process – execution – is not taken. Just how often, and just how badly it fails, is something I explore in Surprise Attack.
Again and again our response to threats and crises has failed due to a failure to prioritize and execute the identified measures before the threat becomes reality. And once again, with the current pandemic, we are suffering from that same failure.
Perhaps the saddest part is that we have significantly expanded the scope and sophistication of our threat response exercises, and we have sound routines and practices in place to communicate the measures the exercise dictate. Those improvements began during the 1990s when terror attacks were elevated to the level of national threat exercises – following the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, the abortive Twin Towers bombing, the Bojinka airliner terror bombing plot and the aborted Millennium terror attacks on the United States. As of 1999/2000 an expanded variety of threat exercises had become routine.
Of course one of the fundamental challenges is prioritizing new and evolving threats over those that become “embedded” in the worldviews of national leaders. In democratic nations senior leadership tends to focus on the “threats” that were part of their own political campaigns. Staying behind the curve on prioritizing national threats can be extremely dangerous.
We have a contemporary example of that in the current pandemic:
Unfortunately this is not a new problem, the same types of executive priority failures have occurred on multiple occasions, errors in both 1941 and 2001 illustrate how presidential priorities and related resource allocations can have disastrous consequences.
One of the most dramatic illustrations of the overall systemic problem – which in reality is a matter of simply “closing the loop” – can be found in the recent history of American threat exercises.
As early as the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, planning exposed the serious threat of aircraft being used as weapons against civilian targets. One of the problems which immediately emerged was that with the end of the Cold War very few air defense aircraft were available should such a threat become real. Even more concerning, air defense radar networks had been closed down, and it was pointed out that if a large commercial aircraft simply turned off its transponder it would literally become invisible to the FAA air control network.
In the following years the North American Defense Command began to exercise against the threat of commercial hijacked airliners, even with scenarios that involved crashing the aircraft into major metropolitan buildings. Yet in all the exercises ready response interceptors were assumed to be close to the scene and the hijacked airliners continued to broadcast their locations with their transponders left on. This failure to integrate known weaknesses, to close the reality loop, became terribly evident within the first minutes of the attacks on America in 9/11.
As a whole, American threat exercising became broader and far more realistic following the events of 2001. Those exercises addressed another fundamental problem which had become clear on 9/11 – if senior officials are not part of the exercises, the lessons learned do not get implemented in policy or in budgets. With that lesson in mind a new series of senior level exercises were created, designated as TOPOFF (Top Officials).
In 2009 the TOPOFF defense exercises were integrated with a series of FEMA exercises and designated as Tier 1 National Level Exercises. Every effort was made to involve the highest level officials; in 2009 President Obama led one such exercise from the White House Situation Room. In 2011 he was involved with an expanded exercise, one which went beyond simply response to restoration – simulating a massive earthquake on the New Madrid Fault Line along with a huge foreign cyber-attack. Such exercises are critical because they assume that the first response fails and all the measures in place “break”, the challenge is to cover from a totally broken system.
Which is what we face in 2020, with a pandemic which literally overwhelmed and broke the system. But a pandemic which (contrary to what you may hear from the White House) was forecast by professional threat analysts, was identified early by the intelligence community, and which had actually been exercised as a threat – producing detailed recommendations on the necessary measures to deal with it.
The exercise was named Crimson Contagion. Its predictions were accurate and shocking. And once again the loop was not closed operationally – in terms of priorities, funding and national security directives. At least that’s my take on it.
If you take the time to read the articles at these two links I’d like to hear yours:
Without resorting to another post, anyone interested in this subject should read the following article. I may expand on it later but the failure to respond to an identified pandemic threat – a failure at the level of the national security council, with the national security advisor, and with presidential priorities is terribly similar to the failure in the months before the 9/11 attacks on America.
Without resorting to another post I suggest anyone interested in this subject should read the following article. I may expand on it later but the failure to respond to an identified pandemic threat – a failure at the level of the national security council, with the national security advisor, and with presidential priorities is terribly similar to the failure in the months before the 9/11 attacks on America.