The US Defense Department has instructed all military commanders to maintain their units' ability to go to war in the event of widespread year 2000-related critical infrastructure failures, relegating local community assistance to the bottom of the department's priority list.
Local commanders at military installations across the US and abroad will be authorised to "undertake immediate, unilateral, emergency response actions that involve measures to save lives, prevent human suffering or mitigate great property damage" in the event of catastrophic infrastructure failures, according to a recent memorandum signed by deputy secretary of Defense John Hamre. But the fundamental message contained in the memo is: maintain 'go to war' readiness. As a result, the lion's share of the responsibility for local assistance is likely to fall on the shoulders of the National Guard, experts said.
"As a basic principle, commanders will not compromise operational readiness in providing support to civil authorities," Hamre said in a memo circulated throughout the department in late February. Except for emergencies, "requests for DoD support will be considered only if submitted through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or appropriate offices of the Department of State", according to the memo.
Likewise, the DoD Year 2000 Management Plan assigns top priority to forces involved in ongoing military operations.
A spokesman for the Senate's Special Committee on the Year 2000 Computer Problem said that unlike in Britain, where reports indicate the military is gearing up to guard banks, power stations and other key facilities, "there are no special plans [in the US] to use the military outside of its normal role", but state governors still maintain their authority to call up the National Guard if necessary. "We don't expect widespread civil disobedience in the US," the spokesman said.
However, several independent experts on state and local year 2000 readiness recently warned the Senate committee that state and local emergency agencies may not be prepared to respond in the event of multiple, widespread failures that occur in the dead of winter. As a result, the National Guard and other DoD organisations could become, whether they like it or not, key players in civil assistance operations, experts said.
In fact, a report published this month by the General Accounting Office concluded that only two of the 21 largest cities in the country are fully prepared for the year 2000 date change. In fact, "relatively few [cities] reported completing [year 2000 fixes to] water and waste water treatment systems, public building systems and emergency service systems", according to the report. However, the failure of these types of systems "could lead to a breakdown in a city's infrastructure, potentially seriously affecting city residents", the report said.
"There are many in this country who are not able to prepare or care for themselves in an emergency," said Paloma O'Riley, co-founder of the Cassandra Project, a grass-roots organisation focusing on individual year 2000 preparedness. "DoD can say all it wants that it's not its charter, but it knows that people will be knocking on its door," O'Riley said.
O'Riley, who recently returned from Alaska where she met with military officials from the Alaskan Command headquarters and various National Guard units, said DoD officials there are taking a different approach to the rest of the department when it comes to year 2000 assistance, proactively offering their help to local officials. "They see themselves as having a responsibility to the community," O'Riley said. "It is the only military group that I've talked to that really sees itself as having a role in community assistance."
Dusty Finley, Alaska's Year 2000 coordinator, said DoD's Alaskan Command has been "very openly and aggressively" cooperating with local civilian authorities in developing a public outreach program. The Alaskan Command has developed what he called one of the "most detailed operations orders ever" that spells out what the military will do to support Alaska's civilian communities, 90 per cent of which are accessible only by air or dogsled, he said. "This is out of character with what we see happening elsewhere," Finley said. The military is "uniquely postured" to help with emergency response, Finley said.
Norman Dean, executive director of the Centre for Y2K and Society, said that while some states have decided that they will activate the National Guard, the use of DoD assets is probably more appropriate as a "contingency plan of last resort". However, "the nation does not need additional 'conversations' about Y2K; we need action," Dean said.
"Without the military, the civilian authorities may not be able to assist in a timely manner," Finley said. "It's a cooperative effort, and ultimately it has to be."
At a glance:
DoD's Year 2000 Consequence Management Priority List (in descending order)-- To engage units in ongoing or imminent military or intelligence operations.
-- To engage units to support contingency operations plans.
-- To provide DoD support to civil authorities in cases of public health and safety.
-- To provide DoD support to civil authorities to maintain the health of the US' economy and quality of life.