Homeland Defense:

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

GAO-09-849: Published: Sep 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2009.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Brian J. Lepore
(202) 512-3000
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

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 for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with the recommendation and stated that it would revise its guidance for the Joint Lessons Learned Program to address it. DOD has initiated a revision of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3150.25D that will include the following draft language: "During the Evaluation Phase of the joint lessons learned process, corrective actions and solutions are implemented and verified in a subsequent exercise, operation, experiment or other appropriate venue before being closed. The reasons for closure or recommended re-evaluation are documented as part of the process." This instruction remains in revision. In February 2011, DOD published companion guidance as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Manual 3150.25 on the Joint Lessons Learned Program that included guidance on verifying corrective actions and monitoring issues identified for re-observation. These actions should help DOD and its interagency partners better track lessons learned and corrective actions and addresses the intent of the recommendation.

    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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with the recommendation. NORTHCOM has worked with Department of Homeland Security officials to coordinate the sharing of relevant exercise information. NORTHCOM's exercise directorate now posts lessons learned, after action reports, and Exercise Summary Reports to the Defense Support of Civil Authorities Channel of the Department of Homeland Security's web-based Lessons Learned Information System. NORTHCOM officials have also provided additional means by which the command's lessons learned information may be accessed by interagency partners on NORTHCOM's web portal. These actions should help NORTHCOM and all its exercise partners better coordinate the sharing of exercise information and addresses the intent of the recommendation.

    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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with the recommendation and outlined a number of actions it planned to take to address it. A publicly accessible template now exists on the NORAD and NORTHCOM website, via a registration request. Participants provide the information according to the template and e-mail to the NORTHCOM lessons learned program managers. Additionally, NORTHCOM's exercise directorate manages the defense support of civil authorities channel on Department of Homeland Security's Lessons Learned Information System. Like all other channels, this includes an e-mail capability which allows all registered users to submit documents or other information to the Channel managers. NORTHCOM's exercise officials also collaborated with Department of Homeland Security for the inclusion of a Lessons Learned and after action report discussion web page on the Homeland Security Information Network, which is displayed for all events. This web page was first used during exercise VIGILANT SHIELD in November 2010. NORTHCOM's exercise directorate receives weekly updates and forwards them to the appropriate lessons learned managers to ensure an active follow-thru process exists. These actions should help NORTHCOM and interagency partners more closely coordinate lessons learned and corrective actions from exercises and actual events and address the intent of the recommendation.

    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

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with the recommendation and cited a number of actions it has taken to address it. NORTHCOM completed updates to existing online courses that are part of the command's training that all personnel are required to receive. Updates included training on all-hazards response within the States to include the roles of the Adjutant General, the State Emergency Management Officer (and State Emergency Operations Center), and the Joint Force Headquarters-State, as well as the role of the National Guard Bureau. The Defense Support of Civil Authorities Senior Executive Seminar was replaced with the operationally oriented Defense Support of Civil Authorities State and Local Homeland Security and Emergency Managers Seminar. NORTHCOM also hosts representatives from state-level/city emergency manager/homeland security offices. The instruction includes the ways DOD, National Guard, and federal agency partners support states and communities in support of crises and disasters. The Emergency Managers Seminar is now an annual event. In November 2010, NORTHCOM sponsored a Federal Emergency Management Agency Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program training course. The course provided 49 NORTHCOM attendees an opportunity to better understand standardized policy, methodology and language used to manage exercises at all levels of government. These actions should improve NORTHCOM's interaction with interagency partners and states for general coordination as well as for improving exercise coordination and addresses the intent of the recommendation.

    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

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with this recommendation and emphasized that in addition to NORTHCOM and other DOD elements' efforts, the recommendation has applicability to other US Government interagency partners. As such, DOD emphasized the role of the interagency Exercise and Evaluation Sub-Interagency Planning Committee in revising the National Exercise Program implementation plan. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided a draft rewrite of the plan to the Secretary of Homeland Security in November 2010. The document states that it "seeks to be more effective, realistic, and collaborative across all levels of government, non-governmental organizations and the public and private sectors, with a renewed emphasis on periodically conducting no-notice and limited-notice events." DOD collaborated in the National Exercise Program implementation plan revision process. DOD reiterated that while NORTHCOM encourages states to participate in exercises, State participation is dependent on the states' willingness and ability to fund and provide participants. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a revised National Exercise Program Base Plan in March 2011 and a revised National Exercise Program Implementation Plan in June 2012. Taken together, these actions address the intent of the recommendation and should help NORTHCOM and its interagency partners better involve state partners in exercises.

    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

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with the recommendation and cited a number of efforts NORTHCOM and the Joint Staff are taking to address it. NORTHCOM now uses the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation System (HSEEP) after-action report format for reports following National Level Exercises and major events, and posts these reports and Exercise Summary reports to the Department of Homeland Security's Lessons Learned Information Sharing System ( LLIS.gov). The Joint Staff and NORTHCOM are also tracking the development of the newly proposed FEMA National Exercise Division's Remedial Action Management Plan that, once fielded, will integrate Exercise Summary reports, lessons learned, and corrective action information. These actions should help NORTHCOM and its other DOD and interagency partners improve the quality and usefulness of exercise documentation and addresses the intent of the recommendation.

    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

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with the intent of the recommendation but stated that existing guidance provided sufficient direction for DOD components with respect to participating in the National Exercise Program. DOD subsequently decided to revise a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff instruction that re-iterates DOD guidance with respect to the National Exercise Program and addresses conditions for combatant command use of the Homeland Security Exercise Evaluation Program, as determined by DOD early in the particular exercise life cycle. Parallel with this effort, DHS issued a revised National Exercise Program Base Plan in March 2011 and a revised National Exercise Program Implementation Plan in June 2012. DOD continues to incorporate information from these documents into the revised instruction and expects to issue it in fall 2013. Additionally, DOD revised the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction on Joint Training Policy and Guidance (CJCSI 3500.01G) in March 2011 to incorporate further guidance on DOD participation in the National Exercise Program. Taken together, these actions, and progress toward further action, address the intent of the recommendation.

    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

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Nov 6, 2014

Oct 14, 2014

Sep 30, 2014

Sep 24, 2014

Sep 18, 2014

Sep 17, 2014

Sep 10, 2014

Sep 9, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here