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Frequency of Major Disaster Exercises

They don't happen enough to maintain readiness

Two things were covered this morning as I listened to my flash briefing on my Kindle. First there was the news that President Trump had agreed that the "war games" (in the military terminology, military exercises) were costly and provocative. Then there was a very short news item that the Washington State Emergency Management Division had begun planning for the next major earthquake exercise to be held four years from now.

What keeps the military sharp and ready for combat is a continuous cycle of planning, training and exercising. In my early years in the military I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas with the 2nd Armored Division. We would "go to the field" at least two weeks a month and sometimes more, every month--rain or shine. As a former battalion commander once said, I've never seen a rusty soldier. The repetition of repeated field training exercises made our unit extremely proficient in our combat arms readiness. 

The last Cascadia Rising Earthquake Exercise was held two years ago, this month, in June 2016. Thus, it will be six years between these events. King TV noted the scheduling of the 2022 exercise. Imagine six years between these exercises. What level of disaster readiness does that promote?  Almost none! For the DOD military components that will participate there will have been four cycles of staffing rotation in between the exercises. What was learned two years ago by the staff who participated then is long forgotten. The players four years from now will be doing well to even find the after-action reports from six years ago. 

I always tell military personnel transitioning from the military to emergency management that the plan, train, exercise cycle is very weak in our emergency management world. We have other things to do, like "grant administration."

That brings me back to backing off on military exercises in Korea. In my three years with I Corps, Fort Lewis, Wash., I participated every year in joint Team Spirit exercises in Korea. I had many different trips to Korea to conduct planning and reconnaissance for the exercises. Costly, yes--but, that is what readiness is. The concept of  recruiting service people, equipping them, and then putting them on the shelf for when you need them has been tried many times before. It does not work and our "lunch has been handed to us in early battles" for just about every war we've fought. The outset of the Korean War is a great example of a lack of training and readiness by the United States military. 

But then, the lessons of the past will continue to be taught until they are learned. We are collectively, poor learners. 

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.