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One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. -- Plato (429-347 BC)

Friday, June 05, 2020

Should Federal Military Forces Be Engaged In A National Civil Disturbance Crisis?

Marvin L. Covault, Lt.Gen (Ret)
by Marvin L. Covault, Lt.Gen (Ret): I know, this is too long. But a couple days ago I received an email from a highly respected former boss and long-time friend. The use of military forces in the on-going crisis is a current question that perhaps I should attempt to answer because, he reminded me, I am the only senior commander that has done this in the past 50 years. So, I will use Thomas Jefferson’s excuse; when finished writing a long letter to a friend, he apologized for its length, saying, “if I would have had more time it would be shorter.”

Background: March, 1991 the nation saw, on film, five white LA police officers brutally beat a black gentleman, Rodney King.

While all of us had viewed the taped beating over and over in great close-up detail, a year later those five white police officers were found not guilty by an all-white jury. That verdict was announced at 3:15 p.m. 29 April, 1992 and Los Angeles erupted, most particularly in South/Central LA.

The final tally was as follows: 55 killed, over 2000 injured, about $1 Billion dollars is damages, over 10,000 rioters were directly involved in looting and destruction, over 1000 buildings seriously damaged or destroyed, the fire department responded to more than 4000 fires. This was not taking place at 5th and Elm street; it covered an area of about 100 square miles of built-up urban terrain; by far the most difficult terrain in which to operate. The largest riot in US history.

At the time I was the commander of the 7th Infantry Division (2-star position) at Ft Ord CA about 350 miles north of LA. 7th ID, by design, was the most rapidly deployable division in the world.

President George H.W. Bush had already dispatched 1000 Federal riot-trained law enforcement officials, FBI SWAT teams, special riot control units of the US Marshals Service, Border Patrol, Bureau of Prisons personnel and other Federal law enforcement agencies.

At about the 36-hour point, May the 1st at about 2 a.m. we, 7th ID, received a call from our military higher headquarters in Atlanta, and were told, “a military force may be needed in LA but don’t do anything yet.” Dumb order, we immediately began to plan for a rapid deployment. Six hours later at about 0800 we received a second call, “there will be a military deployment but it will not be the 7th ID.” CNN was following everything related to the riots live and continuously.

Thirty minutes later we watched President Bush, live on TV, walk into the White House Briefing Room and announce, “I have decided to deploy the 7th ID to LA to help secure the city.” Game on. By the next morning we had 12,000 Soldiers and Marines (from nearby Camp Pendleton) deployed in LA and I was in charge of the entire mess.

Later on, in a meeting with President Bush, he told me he had received a phone call from his long-time friend, California Governor Pete Wilson who had told him he wanted the 7th ID to immediately deploy to LA. So, he said, I just went to the briefing room and made the announcement. Everyone in the military chain of command heard it at the same time I did.

Interestingly, the president’s words, “…deploy and help secure the city” were the first, last and only words of guidance I received zero elaboration from my three-star boss, four-star boss, Army Chief of Staff or the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Why no guidance? Because they knew I had spent 29 years training, studying, and being mentored to be ready for that moment. They also knew that the biggest enemy of crisis planning and execution is time. There isn’t enough of it and they all knew the last thing I needed was someone looking over my shoulder and grading my work.

The keys to success in dealing with a crisis are to lean on your strengths, avoid your weaknesses at all costs (to include weak leaders) and decentralize execution.

Two hours after the president’s announcement the deployment was underway and by noon, I was on the ground in LA with a skeleton planning staff. What became immediately apparent was that no ONE was in charge of the multitude of federal, state and local agencies involved. All I could see and sense was chaos. And most concerning was that the California National Guard was streaming into the city with no deployment plan in place.

I called back to Ft Ord and had a dozen of the Division’s best “iron majors” (experienced, mature, articulate officers) flown in the first afternoon and I assigned them as my personal liaison to the Governor, Mayor, Chief of Police Gates, Sheriff Block, Highway Patrol, all the Federal Agencies, the CA National Guard and the Marines. Before dispatching them, I looked them in the eye and told them exactly what they were to do. “You stay about 3 feet from your principal at all times and tell me everything they do, everything they say and who they communicate with. There can be only one boss of this mess and it’s me. You understand?”

Their first mission was to get their principal on a conference call with me that afternoon at which time I gave the participants my first deployment briefing and told them to thereafter be on a conference call with me at 8 a.m. every day wherein I would give them an overall assessment of the night’s activities and what was to be accomplished in the next 6, 12 or 24 hours. Principals only on the conference call. The Governor was not amused about the “principals only” part and it got a little ugly but it worked.

As if President Bush’s surprise deployment announcement at 0830 that morning wasn’t enough; he saved another one for later in the day. At 6 p.m. CA time, President Bush presented an update briefing to the nation. First topic of the speech was, “I have decided to Federalize the California National Guard.” At that moment, with those words, I became the Commander of the CA National Guard and they all became federal US Army soldiers. That was actually a blessing because we immediately took charge of their rally points, established training stations (particularly to train rules of engagement) and integrated them into the overall deployment plan.

My purpose here is not to necessarily criticize Governors, Mayors, Police Chiefs, etc in the cities recently being burned and looted but rather to explain why it can make sense to consider deployment of federal military forces early in the crisis.

First of all, none of the on-scene leaders, governors and mayors have years of experience in crisis-action planning or execution. The US military does, from top to bottom. So having a senior military leader on the scene and in charge with all the assets of the Defense Department at their disposal can be a value-added game changer.

It became obvious the past few days watching and listening to the city and state leaders as the riots got worse and deadlier, that no ONE was in charge. If no ONE person is in charge, no one is in charge. If no one is in charge there is no plan. That was the situation I found in LA in 1992 and it is what became very obvious as I listened to the governors/mayors/police chiefs during the George Floyd uprising.

From my experiences in LA in 1992, I see many advantages to the use of federal troops early. Here are some:

Mass: The US military has lots of soldiers and they can deploy rapidly to any city. I had, on the ground, over a thousand squads (9-person teams). What we have witnessed in the past few days the initial call-up of 500 National Guardsmen in Minnesota and a couple hundred Military Police from Fort Bragg to New York were tokens, too small and too ineffective.

Experienced leaders: The leaders I had in LA had years of training in crisis-action planning and execution. Governors and mayors have nothing like that available to them.

Existing operating chain of command: Never underestimate the value and power of injecting an existing, experienced entire chain of command into a crisis situation. There was no down-time, no learning-curve; we became immediately operational. The governors/mayors had nothing like that available to them and could not put it together.

Communications: Integral to the in-place chain of command was existing communications protocols that were utilized and practiced on a daily basis in training and transferred directly into the LA area of operations. None of this was in place prior to our arrival which made their daily operations difficult to impossible.

Mission: Every leader and soldier understand “mission.” My overall mission statement to Task Force LA was to rapidly create a safe and secure environment for every citizen in LA. Just as important, that mission was picked up by the media, transmitted and understood by the millions of LA residents. Additionally, that overarching mission was filtered down through the chain of command, increasing in specificity to every soldier so that the squad leaders were telling their soldiers that their mission was to maintain complete situational awareness of their assigned area of operation (a street corner, or city block) and be prepared to report any unusual activity and/or the gathering together of a crowd. During recent events across America did anyone hear a mission statement. Did we see an ever-increasing de-escalation of hostilities? Quite the contrary.

Rapid reaction: The troops where on 18-hour shifts throughout the 100 square mile area. Their company and battalion headquarters were nearby in schools and parks. Every headquarters had multiple rapid-reaction forces of varying sizes who were prepared to move immediately to any area where the squad or platoon leader needed back-up. Another capability beyond the locals reach.

“Mission creep” are the two ugliest words in the English language. When left to their own devices, governors/mayors/police chiefs will try a little of this first, then some of that, well that didn’t work let’s try a curfew, and so it unfolded; one failure after another until they find something that works or the looters just grow weary of their efforts. Upon deploying throughout LA during that initial 24-hour period, we were in a forceful, dominant position. Trial and error was not part of out game plan.

To the contrary, what we saw over the past days across America was people dying, businesses destroyed and everyone pointing fingers at the failure of the police to gain control. Trial and error is a process but it rarely works in a crisis because time is the biggest enemy. You don’t have enough of it (time) before the looters roll in for another night of mayhem. I am not implying that political leaders don’t mean well and hope for the best; what I’m saying is, hope is not a process.

Rules of engagement: Day after day during the George Floyd uprising, I could not discern the rules of engagement for the police departments. For the US military, rules of engagement is a given. It’s one of the, “don’t leave home without it” issues. Every soldier must have a complete and thorough understanding of ROE.

I wrote the rules of engagement on the plane in route to LA, called them back to my Chief of Staff who had the printers standing by. They were no seen by a lawyer, not presented for approval to higher authority (time is our enemy) and they also never changed. ROE cannot be vague and ever-changing. Before they were on the streets of LA in 1992, every soldier had a 3×5 card in his/her breast pocket that spelled out in plain, non-legalese verbiage what they could and could not do.

-No crew-served weapons (machine guns) allowed.

-Rifle selector switches will never be set on automatic or 3-round burst mode.

-Bayonets will not be locked onto the rifle.

-Every soldier has the inherent right of self-defense.

-No rounds chambered unless you must fire in self-defense.

-Rifle position one: no round chambered. Magazine full and in place in the rifle. Rifle held with both hands diagonally across the chest with muzzle up (port arms).

-Rifle position two: Rifle at port arms with magazine removed and in ammo pouch.

-Rifle position three: Rifle at sling arms, magazine removed, muzzle up. This is designed to be a less threatening posture but still, if necessary, he/she could unsling the rifle, insert a magazine, lock and load in 5 seconds or less.

-Rifle position four: Rifle at sling arms, magazine removed, muzzle down.

What were the rules of engagement in Minneapolis, New York or Washington DC? Could the general population discern what they were? I think not.

Managing change: Early in the crisis we were operating in 6-hour planning cycles, then to 12, then to 24 and finally to sustainment. As the crisis de-escalated, general orders and ROE rifle positions would be changed. Changes would move down from ONE central source to every soldier in a matter of minutes. Additionally, daily operational orders did not need to be one size fits all. The entire area was divided into identifiable zones that could be easily referenced with specific applicable instructions.

Unity of command is critical: Throughout this latest crisis, the trick has been to sort out what was and was not to be done during the next day by listening to daily media pronouncements from the governor, mayor and chief of police. No unity of command equals confusion, often chaos, and results in little if any progress. On day eight of the rioting in NY city we saw the mayor and chief of police speaking publicly and giving conflicting guidance to the police force.

President Bush did me a tremendous favor by federalizing the CA National Guard. Without that, unity of command would have been very difficult.

Have a clear concept of operations and TTP (tactics, techniques and procedures: The issues we used in Task Force LA were implemented quickly and effectively. Such as:

1. In LA hundreds of CA Highway Patrolmen were on the outskirts of LA waiting for orders. We sent several cars/patrolmen to every fire station. When called out, the patrolmen would provide escort for the firemen and immediately establish a secure perimeter with arrest authority thereby providing firemen the opportunity to do their work.

2. Our directive to the LA police and sheriffs’ deputies was simple; make arrests, transport and process criminals. Period. How many times in the past few days have we seen on TV several police cars with lights and sirens streaming down a street followed by one 10-passenger paddy wagon? Wrong answer. Put large numbers of arrested offenders into city buses along with a couple policemen who were arresting officers. Transport them to a very large (auditorium, sports stadium) facility where the accompanying police can describe the offenses during processing. “Processing” should take 6-8 hours; keep them off the streets. Special attention should be given to those offenders who resisted arrest; jail cells if available.

3. Proactive, proactive, proactive. An experienced, coherent military force will immediately get ahead of the power curve and take the advantage away form the rioters. For example, in LA we had quick reaction forces (QRF) of varying sizes at company, battalion and brigade headquarters all over the 100 square mile area of operation. A call from a squad leader reporting “crowd gathering” would be dealt with in minutes while the “crowd” was likely less than a dozen people vs the normal crowds of hundreds we have been seeing consistently on TV the past few days. LA police and buses were on station with every QRF and routinely accompanies a QRF to take care of arrests.

4. “Peaceful marches”. They were prohibited in the afternoon because the crowd would tend to grow, linger into the evening and move towards a target area for looting. Proactively prohibit that type of behavior.

5. Begin curfews well before dark. The recent New York curfew beginning at 11 p.m. was pure insanity. By then the looters have distributed their cache of weapons, bricks, clubs, etc. and have all the momentum for the remainder of the night.

6. Manage information flow from ONE command headquarters. I was routinely out and about LA at night. At 8 a.m. I hosted a conference call with all the principals; governor, mayor, police chief, sheriff, etc. The intent was to provide a SitRep (situation report) of the previous night’s activities, by sector. Then, describe for them what steps would be taken, by sector, over the next 6 or 12 or 24 hours. That information was the SINGLE SOURCE for their use as they dealt with the media that day. If one of them got off message, my liaison major was to contact me directly and I would deal with it.

It was equally important to manage information up the chain of command. I did this by sending out a daily SITREP to my bosses. They, in turn, may or may not have commented on it and dutifully forwarded it to the service chiefs and the JCS Chairman, Colin Powell. When he came to LA to visit the troops, President Bush kindly told me he had the SITREP delivered to his quarters every morning at 0500 and felt comfortable that he had what he needed to know for the day ahead.

7. Redefine the battle space. In the 7th Infantry Division, we trained hard every day and night to close with and destroy the enemy. The initial priority in LA was to redefine the battlespace where the objective was to create an environment where no one would die. It was remarkably easy. Your soldiers are so well trained, responsible and agile of mind and body, that a chat with their squad leader about the rules of engagement was all it took. By contrast, New York City Mayor De Blasio said, after repeated nights of looting and burning, “When outside armed forces go into communities, no good comes of it. We have seen this for decades.” He went on to explain that, “The National Guard is not trained to handle rampant looters and violent thugs.” Has he been living on the back side of the moon?

My intent was to develop a contrast between what ended up to be a successful, large, complex crisis undertaking in 1992 with deployed federal troops in contrast to the chaos, indecision by governors/mayors in a disastrous situation that has gone on far longer that it should.

My answer to the title question, is yes, federal military forces should be engaged in national civil disturbances crises.

Was Task Force LA perfect? Not by a long shot but then dealing with crisis rarely is. Did we make mistakes? Certainly. But the bottom line is, once our forces deployed and got on the scene no one lost their life and the rioting, looting and burning quickly stopped.
Marvin Covault, Lt.Gen (Ret) shared this article initially on We The People Speaking blog. Author of VISION TO EXECUTION, a book for leaders.

Tags: Marvin Covault, Lt.Gen, Should Federal Military Forces, Be Engaged, In A National, Civil Disturbance Crisis To share or post to your site, click on "Post Link". Please mention / link to the ARRA News Service and "Like" Facebook Page - Thanks!
Posted by Bill Smith at 4:00 PM - Post Link


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