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Homeland Defense: U.S. Northern Command Has a Strong Exercise Program, but Involvement of Interagency Partners and States Can Be Improved.

GAO-09-849 September 9, 2009

U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) exercises to test preparedness to perform its homeland defense and civil support missions. GAO was asked to assess the extent to which NORTHCOM is (1) consistent with Department of Defense (DOD) training and exercise requirements, (2) involving interagency partners and states in its exercises, (3) using lessons learned and corrective actions to improve preparedness, and (4) integrating its exercises with the National Exercise Program (NEP). To do this, GAO reviewed NORTHCOM and NEP guidance and postexercise documentation, assessed NORTHCOM compliance, and compared DOD and NEP exercise requirements.

NORTHCOM's exercise program is generally consistent with the requirements of DOD's Joint Training System, but its exercise reporting is inconsistent. Since the command was established in 2002, NORTHCOM has conducted 13 large-scale exercises and generally completed exercise summary reports within the required time frame. However, those reports did not consistently include certain information, such as areas needing improvement, because NORTHCOM lacks guidance that specifies exercise reports' content and format, potentially impacting its ability to meet internal standards for planning and execution of joint exercises, and to compare and share exercise results over time with interagency partners and states. Nineteen federal agencies and organizations and 17 states and the District of Columbia have participated in one or more of the seven large-scale exercises that NORTHCOM has conducted since September 2005. However, NORTHCOM faces challenges in involving states in the planning, conduct, and assessment of its exercises, such as adapting its exercise system and practices to involve other federal, state, local, and tribal agencies that do not have the same practices or level of planning resources. Inconsistencies with how NORTHCOM involves states in exercises are occurring in part because NORTHCOM officials lack experience dealing with states and do not have a consistent process for including states in exercises. Without such a process, NORTHCOM increases the risk that its exercises will not provide benefits for all participants, impact the seamless exercise of all levels of government, and potentially affect NORTHCOM's ability to provide civil support capabilities. NORTHCOM has a systematic lessons learned and corrective action program to improve preparedness, but gaps remain with collecting and sharing lessons with agency and state partners and managing corrective actions. Access to the system NORTHCOM uses for managing exercise observations is limited for non-DOD participants, and DOD believes that the Department of Homeland Security's system is not adequately protected from unauthorized users. NORTHCOM's mitigation steps have not resolved the issues. In addition, about 20 percent of the corrective actions tracked by NORTHCOM were being closed prematurely due to gaps in oversight. Closing issues prematurely increases the risk that issues will reoccur and limits the knowledge gained and value of the exercise. NORTHCOM has taken steps to integrate its exercises with the NEP, but guidance is not consistently applied. NORTHCOM has participated in several NEP exercises and is leading its first major NEP exercise in the fall of 2009. However, NORTHCOM has used DOD's Joint Training System planning and documentation requirements rather than DHS's requirements, because NEP guidance is not clear on what exercise planning standard should be used and DOD guidance does not address the issue. The states we visited use NEP guidance. Differences between NEP and DOD guidance could affect the ability of all participants to develop effective working relationships.

Recommendations

Our recommendations from this work are listed below with a Contact for more information. Status will change from "In process" to "Open," "Closed - implemented," or "Closed - not implemented" based on our follow up work.

Director: Davi M. Dagostino Team: Government Accountability Office: Defense Capabilities and Management Phone: (202) 512-5431

Recommendations for Executive Action

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Recommendation: To improve NORTHCOM's consistency with exercise documentation, the Secretary of Defense should direct NORTHCOM's Commander to develop guidance with specific criteria for postexercise documentation, particularly the Exercise Summary Report as the official exercise record, including the content and format to be included in such reports that will allow the results and lessons learned of exercises to be easily reviewed and compared.

Agency Affected: Department of Defense

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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Recommendation: To improve NORTHCOM's involvement of interagency partners and states in its exercises, the Secretary of Defense should, in consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commander, U.S. Northern Command, and other relevant combatant commanders, coordinate with DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop guidance and procedures for consistently involving state officials in planning, executing, and assessing exercises that incorporate relevant state-specific information.

Agency Affected: Department of Defense

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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Recommendation: To improve NORTHCOM's involvement of interagency partners and states in its exercises, the Secretary of Defense should direct NORTHCOM's Commander to develop a training plan for NORTHCOM headquarters staff on state emergency management structures and relevant issues related to working with civilian state and local emergency management officials.

Agency Affected: Department of Defense

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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Recommendation: To improve NORTHCOM's involvement of interagency partners and states in its lessons learned and corrective action process and its management of corrective actions, the Secretary of Defense should direct NORTHCOM's Commander to establish and publicize valid and easily accessible procedures for non-DOD exercise participants to submit observations relevant to NORTHCOM, such as placing a template on NORTHCOM's publicly accessible Web site or DHS's Homeland Security Information Network, so that NORTHCOM officials have a clear, secure avenue to obtain observations and assess potential lessons that originate with its exercise partners.

Agency Affected: Department of Defense

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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Recommendation: To improve NORTHCOM's involvement of interagency partners and states in its lessons learned and corrective action process and its management of corrective actions, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in consultation and coordination with DHS, to either resolve information assurance issues so that the combatant commands, including NORTHCOM, can post Exercise Summary Reports with lessons learned and observations from NEP exercises on DHS's Lessons Learned Information Sharing system to make them easily accessible to interagency partners and states or establish an alternative method to systematically collect and share lessons learned.

Agency Affected: Department of Defense

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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Recommendation: To improve NORTHCOM's involvement of interagency partners and states in its lessons learned and corrective action process and its management of corrective actions, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to revise the joint lessons learned operating instruction to include procedures to ensure that appropriate corrective actions are implemented and verified in a subsequent exercise or operation before being closed and that the reasons for closure are documented. Possible procedures might be adding a verification checkbox on JLLIS's issue management page or requiring that the directorates and subordinate commands within the combatant commands provide a status report when a correction is implemented and reobserved or closed for reasons other than re-observation.

Agency Affected: Department of Defense

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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Recommendation: To improve NORTHCOM's ability to work with interagency partners on major national exercises and further achieve the objectives of the NEP, the Secretary of Defense should revise the instruction on DOD participation in the NEP and/or direct the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to revise the operating instruction regarding DOD participation in the NEP to provide the general conditions under which the combatant commands are expected to follow the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program planning and documentation requirements or the DOD's Joint Training System should be modified for those civil support exercises.

Agency Affected: Department of Defense

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Categories: National Defense, Agency missions, Civil support, Combat readiness, Defense capabilities, Defense contingency planning, Education program evaluation, Evaluation methods, Federal/state relations, Homeland security, Interagency relations, JCS National Defense Strategy, Jurisdictional authority, Lessons learned, Military training, National Exercise Program (NEP), Program evaluation, Reporting requirements, Requirements definition, Systems evaluation, Terrorism, Training utilization, USNORTHCOM, Vigilant Guard Program
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Publication:General Accounting Office Reports & Testimony
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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