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Interview with Major Isaiah Wilson III on Pentagon reform

Interviewer: Eben Kaplan
Interviewee: Isaiah Wilson, Former International Affairs Fellow
August 9, 2005

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The Defense Department has developed war plans to thwart terrorist attacks within the United States, raising the possibility that ground troops may be dispatched on U.S. soil in the event of an emergency. Major Isaiah (“Ike”) Wilson III, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of strategic studies at West Point, says “when you start looking at the nature of these high-end operations, the military has the expertise.”

What’s significant about the Pentagon’s new war plans?

It’s significant mainly because we’re coming to the realization the homeland is a bona fide theater of combat, a theater of war. Wars don’t end at the water’s edge. I think it’s a good sign we’re recognizing that and taking some actions to put together concept plans. This is not all that new, nor is it an out-of-the-box type of thing we’re looking at here, considering the military has always been engaged in a supporting role of law-enforcement or humanitarian-assistance organizations within the continental United States. We’ve always been treated as a support agency for crisis response and humanitarian or hurricane assistance, for instance. We’re just starting to formalize it a little bit more. 

What exactly are the plans that were developed?

I have not seen any of the plans. In my experience, [the Army has] always maintained contingency plans for [U.S.-based] humanitarian-assistance-type missions. This is not a new thing. The [August 8] Washington Post article [on this subject] suggests we’re coming right up against the legal wall of separation between what the military does and what law enforcement does. I agree. We’ve been knocking on that door for quite a long time. These plans still do fall on the proper side, if you will, of that wall of separation because, in those scenarios, the military would not be taking a leading role. We would come in with a small contingent of forces in direct support of a bona fide law enforcement or domestic policy agency.

So then what’s new about these plans? Do they signify a major shift in strategy?

The real new thing here is we have a Northern Command [Northcom], which is the first step in recognizing the homeland as a potential theater of war for the possibility of a war on the home front. That was new, dramatically new. What I see Northcom doing is well in line with its intended mission, [which is] really under the Department of Homeland Security [DHS]. It’s bridging the Department of Defense and DHS.

Is the Pentagon—as the head of Northcom, Admiral Timothy Keating, put it—the “best positioned” agency to respond to domestic threats such as chemical or biological attacks?

You have to think in terms of a spectrum of conflict with a low end and a high end. Any kind of crisis can fall anywhere on the spectrum. At the highest end are the weapons of mass destruction and major theater-of-war scenarios. On the low end is what has traditionally been seen as the domestic or law-enforcement side of this wall of separation, [a wall] the enemy has broken down over the years, with the most significant event being 9/11.

On the low end you have things like the traditional hurricane-relief operations, the military supporting drug-enforcement and border-patrol operations. I don’t think we see any change here. FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] is still the best prepared, most effective agency for these types of—for lack of a better term—low-end operations. They have a history of doing this kind of business and have the expertise.

When you start getting toward more of the high-end, major combat operations—counterterrorism, antiterrorism—you start moving more into the traditional jurisdictions of the military. I don’t want to put words in the admiral’s mouth, but what I interpreted from [his] statement was that when you start looking at the nature of these high-end operations, the military has the expertise. We have the education process that creates high-end warriors, just like FEMA and police departments have the institutions to build domestic warriors. Our structures may be telling us there is a wall of separation between these two, but the enemy has more than questioned that premise.

How does this play into the transformation of the military? Is this something that we will see reflected in the ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review [QDR]?

I know the QDR was charged with not only thinking outside the box, but really thinking beyond the box in defining what [the U.S. military’s] new operating environment is. I think the transformation is intimately linked, at least in concept, to what we see going on with Northcom and the formalization of a war plan for the domestic theater. The Washington Post article poses the possible scenario of a small number of military forces being deployed in a supporting role; they gave a number of about 3,000. That’s about the size of the new packages that the army has started to build. These teams are multifunctional, [with] infantry, logistics, intelligence, military police, and engineers. It would be conceivable to see some expertise and capabilities from FEMA being placed inside of a combat brigade. That makes sense in terms of a domestic conflict and—in my opinion—it also makes sense in the nature of our formal wars [abroad] as well; case in point is Iraq or Afghanistan.

If we had made our units more multifunctional and multi-compositional, we would not have this problem that some say we’ve had [in Iraq]: being very well prepared for the war, but having no plan to win the peace, the stabilization, and reconstruction portion of it. In my opinion, it’s all war, just different ends of the spectrum of war. If you organize properly for the entire war, you can minimize the lag in the transition from a high-end fight to lower-end nation building.

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