The armed forces and civil-military interaction

Sebastiaan Rietjens and Helena de Jong (Netherlands Defence Academy)


While retaining its primary role of safeguarding the country from external threats, the military has become one of the main partners of federal, state, and local agencies in disaster response operations, providing its available resources, logistical capacity, and operational services effectively used against both man-made and natural disasters.(Kapucu 2011, p. 7)

In studying the role of the armed forces in domestic disaster response operations, most attention has been paid to homeland security or counter terrorist activities, in particular in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, Madrid, and London.

Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the role of the armed forces in addressing domestic natural disasters.1 In such a context, the involvement of the armed forces can be manifold and may include a variety of activities. Sylves (2008, p. 172) lists a great number of these activities including: search and rescue; emergency medical care; emergency transport of people; mass feeding; in-kind distribution of food, clothing, and other necessary commodities; epidemiological work and disease control; decontamination (in hazardous materials or radiological circumstances); temporary sheltering; firefighting; help in restoration of electric power and other utility services; debris removal to reopen roads; and bridge repair or temporary bridge replacement, as well as offer security and property protection aid. Armed forces are frequently requested to contribute to disaster response operations: are usually well organized, trained, mobile, well equipped, and available (Clark, 2006, p. 1). Kapucu (2011, p. 9) stresses that armed forces

  • have manpower with specific qualifications, skills and expertise;
  • forces are capable of a strategic and rapid mobilization;
  • have a variety of equipment (e.g. helicopters, aircraft, earth-moving machinery, respirators, medical supplies, power and lighting equipment, under-water capability) that most other emergency organizations lack.

Moreover, “the military’s relative autonomy and efficient bureaucratic structure with hierarchical rules; which are effective in command, coordination, and control of manpower, authority, and regulations, is beneficial in providing effective response actions”. (Kupucu, 2011, p. 9)

Requesting military support

When civilian agencies request military support, there are three guiding principles according to Salmon et al. (2011, p. 141):

  1. “Military aid should always be the last resort, with the use of mutual aid, other agencies and the private sector all having been considered as insufficient or unsuitable; 

  2. The civil authority lacks the required capability to fulfill the task and it is unreasonable or prohibitively expensive to expect it to develop one; and 

  3. The civil authority has a capability, but the need to act is urgent and it lacks readily available resources.”

Additional factors that should be taken into consideration when requesting military support are (e.g. Kapucu, 2011; FEMA, 2008; Schrader, 1993):

  1. Legality: whether the legal basis of military involvement aligns with the national laws and regulations that are in place (Kapucu, 2011). Most, if not all, European countries have specified the conditions under which armed forces may support in disaster response operations.
  2. The potential cost of military involvement and its impact on the budget of the Ministry of Defence must be determined. Military assets are more costly than similar assets of civilian emergency responders in light of the reliability, security and robustness of military assets. Wiharta et al. (2008, p. 43), however, also stress that “because military assets are usually kept in a state of readiness for quick deployment, defence ministries already cover their procurement and basic running costs, whether the assets are being used or not. Thus, the idea that deploying military assets is much more expensive than deploying civilian assets should be regarded with caution”. Most western countries have mechanisms in place for sharing the costs of military involvement in assisting to disaster response operations. In the US for example the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimburses the Department of Defence for some of the costs that occurred in disaster response operations (Schrader, 1993).
  3. Lethality: this defines the possibility of the use of lethal force while providing assistance. Although lethality is mainly an issue in cases of homeland security or counter terrorism, it may be important in the context of natural disasters as well. Several historical cases such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have shown that maintaining law and order is an essential task to which armed forces also may contribute.
  4. Potential risks that may threaten the armed forces. Although the armed forces are trained to operate in unsafe places, natural disasters may pose severe risks to the soldiers that are being deployed. These risks may include the collapse of buildings, the danger of asphyxiation in case of (forest) fires or the breaching of dikes.
  5. The extent to which military services and resources are appropriate for providing assistance. Some practitioners and researchers involved argue that just because the military has the capacity to perform a task, it may not necessarily be the most appropriate entity to do so, since most militaries do not often train their personnel in disaster response. For example, the militaries apply different standards. They are expected to provide high-quality water to small populations rather than adequate water to large populations, as is needed in a natural disaster response (Wiharta, 2008). Also, in case of medical care militaries are mostly equipped to treat young men that are physically fit, while natural disasters may lead to many injuries (e.g. fractured bones) or patients (e.g. elderly, children) that the military is not used to deal with.
  6. The readiness of military forces to provide assistance that will not harm the primary mission of the Ministry of Defence (Kapucu, 2011; Buchalter 2007). In most countries the primary mission of the armed forces is safeguarding the country from external threats. Moreover, the armed forces of many western countries are heavily involved in overseas operations such as in Afghanistan, Iraq or Mali. This focus limits the readiness of the armed forces to get involved in domestic disaster response operations.

Civil-military coordination

Due to the growing diversity, complexity, and scale of many disasters, there is an increasing requirement for the military and civilian organisations to adequately coordinate their activities during disaster response operations (Salmon et al., 2011). For example, Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 2007 floods around Gloucestershire in the UK are all recent examples of disaster response operations in which military and civilian organisations worked alongside each other.

Despite its importance, civil-military coordination during disaster response operations remains a neglected research area (Chen et al., 2008). The two tables below illustrate the wide variety of issues emerging when civil and military organisations attempt to work closely together, for two recent cases as well as the recommendations and lessons that were learned during their evaluation.

2007 UK floods, summer of 2007, Gloucestershire region, UK. (Pit, 2008; adapted from Salmon et al., 2009)

  • Lack of an organisation responsible for surface water flooding;
  • No clear coordination structure;

  • Lack of coordination between Meteorological (Met) Office and Environment

  • Lack of communication & sharing of key information between agencies;
  • Lack of mutual aid agreements between civil organisations; 

  • Lack of clarity regarding roles and responsibilities of different
  • Ad-hoc systems, structures and protocols;
  • Lack of leadership at Gold (i.e. strategic) command level;
  • Instances where Silver (i.e. tactical) command was activated instead of Gold; 

  • Lack of appropriate command HQs.
Recommendations & lessons learned
  • Should be a single national organisation with an overarching responsibility for all types of flooding;
  • Information must be readily shared between agencies in a form that can be used;
  • Joint warnings issued by the Met Office and the Environment Agency;
  • Enhanced IT, real time mapping and visualisation tools should be available to every Gold command;

  • Mutual aid agreements should be established between organisations;
  • Roles, responsibilities and capabilities of all agencies should be clearly defined and communicated;

  • Preparedness of HQs (e.g. accommodation, IT and comms systems) should be regularly tested; also purpose built HQs are required;

  • Communications procedures between agencies should be clarified.

2005 Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans (Banipal, 2006; adapted from Salmon et al., 2009)

  • Complete loss of communications hindered the response significantly;

  • Lack of an appropriate incident command structure;
  • Lack of coordination between agencies e.g. Urban search and rescue and civil search and rescue;

  • Lack of a process for a unified response (National Incident Management System (NIMS) & National Response Plan (NRP)) inefficient for large scale catastrophic events);
  • State and local authorities lacked the ability to communicate with
one another;
  • Command centres had unclear roles and responsibilities; 

  • Secretary of Homeland Security had difficulty coordinating the activities of federal departments and agencies – he lacked situation awareness, both of the disaster and of the response;
  • Key decision makers at all levels were not familiar with plans or NIMS.
Recommendations & lessons learned
  • Need to establish a National Operations Center to coordinate national response and provide situation awareness and a common operation picture for federal government;

  • Interagency team should review and revise NIMS and NRP; All agencies/departments should align responses to NIMS;
  • There should a formal NIMS training program for all those responsible for incident management across agencies;
  • There should be an interagency planning and execution system;
  • Need to establish a National Information and Knowledge Management System;
  • Need to establish a National Information Requirements and a National Information Reporting Chain;

  • Need to establish mutual aid agreements;
  • Need to establish a national crisis communication system to support information exchange from the President, across the Federal government, and down to the State level;
  • Need to establish a deployable communications capability;
  • Need to clearly define roles, responsibilities and capabilities of different agencies.

At a meta-level, Salmon et al. (2011, p. 153) have distilled and structured the issues that influence civil-military coordination during disaster response operations. They have grouped the issues into the following categories: the organisation, information management, communication, situation awareness, equipment, cultural issues and training.

Issues limiting civil-military during emergency responses (Salmon et al., 2011, p. 153). In the table MACA stands for “Military Aid to the Civil Authorities.”

Experiences with civil military coordination in domestic disaster response

For EDUCEN, the Netherlands Defence Academy (NLDA) explored the experiences with civil military interaction in two domestic disaster cases. In May 2016, the NLDA team interviewed several people who had been engaged in the disaster response after the April 2009 earthquake that hit the city of L’Aquila Italy. In November 2016, the NLDA team was present during an exercise in Marken, the Netherlands, which aimed, among others, to enhance interaction between civil and military actors involved in disaster response in the Netherlands.

For both cases, the following research questions were used:

  1. In what phases and how do military and civilian organizations interact in domestic operations and what problems and opportunities can be identified?
  2. To what extent and how were military actors confronted with culture? How did they deal with it?

The preliminary research findings can be found below. The more extensive results will be published in an academic paper.

Experiences with civil military interaction in L’Aquila

In L’Aquila, NLDA -in cooperation with EDUCEN partner CNR IRSA- conducted five interviews with six persons who were employed with response organizations during the April 2009 earthquake. Interviews were held with personnel from the Red Cross, the military, fire brigade and the police. We asked them about their experiences working together with the military or civilian organizations and if and how they encountered culture.

The Italian armed forces were involved in two main tasks:

  • Providing logistical support
  • Controlling the damaged area (or ‘red zone’) and preventing theft

Despite the broad presence of the armed forces in the area, which was extended until 2014, interactions with civil organizations were arranged through the national civil protection services. This entailed that ‘on the ground’ interactions were rather limited according to our respondents. Nevertheless, the respondents did identify problems and opportunities regarding the presence of the armed forces. An important advantage that was mentioned was the fact that military actors could work for long hours whereas civilian organizations often lacked the capacity and man-power to work uninterruptedly (also due to restrictions on consecutive working hours). The main challenge that was mentioned was the risk of ‘military arrogance’, or ‘militarization’ of the city. To moderate this, the military actors received special training which focused on interacting with citizens. Another beneficial factor that moderated the impact of military presence was the deployment of local military actors.

The advantage of having local responders was mentioned by several respondents. Local responders were for example able to assist outside forces in getting around, shortening the arrival time of emergency response. Moreover, they spoke the same dialect as most of the affected inhabitants, enabling them to provide a sense of familiarity and understanding. The local division of the Red Cross for example provided psychological help to people in the shelters. The fact that their personnel spoke in dialect and was trusted by the local people proved beneficial. Obviously, despite this advantage, the fact that they were local also entailed that the disaster impacted them personally, making the experience psychologically and emotionally challenging for them.

Experiences with civil military interaction in Marken

On 2 November 2016, NLDA was present at a two day simulation of a flood emergency exercise in Marken, the Netherlands. A dike breach was simulated requiring massive evacuation of residents. A total of 35 organizations were able to test their emergency plans and learn from the interaction with other partners. NLDA was present during the exercise to observe the interaction between military and civilian actors and spoke with 15 participants about their experiences.

Marken Evacuation of citizens

The military actors were involved in the following activities during the exercise:

  • The evacuation of citizens
  • Dike strengthening
  • Providing a pontoon for transport of civil equipment

The interaction between civil and military actors started in the preparation phase which commenced nearly a year before the actual exercise. This proved to be very helpful in ‘getting to know each other’ but it also revealed the first differences in organizational culture. It was for example mentioned by military respondents that the meetings with the civilian counterparts could have been more efficient. Being used to a rather strict script whilst exercising, they had to adapt to a more flexible approach and non-binding commitments. The civilian actors on the other hand named the language, or jargon, used by the military actors as confusing and difficult to grasp. It was however mentioned by both the civilian and military respondents that the exercise helped to enhance mutual understanding and understanding of each other’s capacities. Moreover, several additional collaborations between organizations arose due to the exercise.

Civil military coordination at the incident command location.

Although the respondents noted that the experiences with civil military interaction during the exercise were positive, remarks were also made regarding information sharing between agencies. It was for example found during the exercise that there was a lack of (technical) information on each other’s material. Moreover, during the evacuation, which was a collaborative effort between military and civilian actors, a lack of clarity regarding roles and responsibilities appeared. Both situations were resolved but point to the importance of considering these issues during the preparation phase.

A total of about 1000 civilians participated in the exercise. Unique for this exercise was also the participation of several locally based organizations (who work on a voluntary basis). This meant that there were opportunities for interaction with the local population and culture. It was for example noted by our respondents that the strong social cohesion that characterizes Marken was very helpful in engaging the local population and securing public support for the exercise.


Banipal, K. (2006). “Strategic approach to disaster management: lessons learned from hurricane Katrina.” In: Disaster Prevention & Management, Vol. 15, No. 3, p. 484 - 494.

Clarke, J.L. (ed.) (2006). Armies in Homeland Security: American and European Perspectives. Washington: National Defense University Press.

Chen, R., R. Sharman, H.R. Rao, and S.J. Upadhyaya (2008). “Coordination in emergency response management.” In: Communications of the ACM, Vol. 51 No. 5, p. 66-73.

Edmunds, T. (2006). “What are armed forces for? The changing nature of military roles in Europe.” In: International Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 6, p. 1059–1075.

Kapucu, N. (2011). “The Role of the Military in Disaster Response in the U.S.” In: European Journal of Economic and Political Studies, Vol. 4, no. 2, p. 7-33.

Pitt, M. (2008). Learning lessons from the 2007 floods. The Pitt Review Report.

Salmon, P., N. Stanton, D. Jenkins and G. Walker, (2011). “Coordination during multi-agency emergency response: issues and solutions.” In: Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2 p. 140 – 158.

Schrader, J.Y. (1993). The Army’s Role in Domestic Disaster Support: An Assessment of Policy Choices. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

Stevenson, J. (2006). “The Role of the Armed Forces of
the United Kingdom in Securing the State against Terrorism.” In: Clarke, J.L. (ed.) (2006). Armies in Homeland Security: American and European Perspectives. Washington: National Defense University Press. P. 21-36.

Sylves, R.T. (2008). Disaster Policy and Politics: Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Washington DC: CQ Press.

Takeda, M.B. and M.M. Helms, (2006). ““Bureaucracy, meet catastrophe”: Analysis of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and their implications for emergency response governance.” In: International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 19, No. 4, p. 397-411.

Wiharta, S., H. Ahmad, J.Y. Haine, J. Löfgren, and T. Randall (2008). The Effectiveness of Foreign Military Assets in Natural Disaster Response. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Stockholm.