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National Level Exercises

June 1, 2010

There’s been some discussion recently about ending the practice of National Level Exercises (nee TOPOFF exercises). One was even cancelled. Many people have looked at the practice and found the exercises to be of limited benefit, especially given the tremendous costs associated with pulling one off.

The EPA recently held a Tier 2 National Level Exercise (NLE) in Philadelphia with reports of more than 700 players and participants in the exercise. That’s a lot of people pulled away from a lot of important things for an entire week. The TOPOFF exercises, even while utilizing as many, or more, personnel, tended to soak up the time of some pretty heavy hitters. Pulling them out of the office really dampens the amount of major decisions being made.

Recently, there was a post on the Security Debrief blog about just this discussion. The  author though, somewhat weakly, makes the argument that exercises are exercises and practicing them is worthwhile, especially as top-level political appointees in Washington change every 4 to 8 years, and many times even more quickly.

I think the author is right, though, I would say it much more forcefully.

Every part of our response apparatus is supposed to practice all facets of their plans. To actually make sure they work. These exercises, however, go beyond that. They force us to address external partners. When we write plans, it’s very easy to say, “And then the SWAT team comes and saves our bacon.” When you exercise that part, though, and SWAT says, “Um, no,” well, you’d better rethink your plan.

That’s the benefit of NLEs. They force those top officials to make sure the plans drawn up by their folks actually integrate with other top officials department’s plans. Better yet, they force those top officials to actually read the plans written for them.

Take, for example, what’s happening in the Gulf right now. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have practiced that worst case scenario from a government perspective? Even if only as a table-top, it would’ve clarified all of those questions about who’s taking the lead, had the menu of options for clean up and remediation ready to go, identified where the pinch points in the response were, so much more.

Maybe we should refocus the question. Maybe holding NLEs isn’t wrong, but maybe instead holding HUGE thousand person exercises is the problem. What if our NLEs become table-top discussion based exercises attended only top officials. The actual responders still do their exercises, but on a much smaller scale.

Your thoughts? Anyone have a problem with walking a few muckety-mucks through a two- or three-hour discussion with their top planners a couple times per year?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 1, 2010 11:29 am

    A very interesting post. Thank you, Jimmy.
    In my view, large is not necessarily bad, or good. It depends how well tbe exercises are done.
    (See this link for a really bad ‘large-scale’ exercise. )
    But there are definitely qualitative differences between large and small exercises. Large ones are more likely to take on a life of their own, more difficult to control, and therefore can be much more useful as a learning process!
    All exercises need to be part of a structured training/ exercise programme if they are to be really successful. As a non-American (UK) I don’t want to criticse your government, but I suspect such problems as do arise tend to come from thinking of exercises in isolation. (Let’s have an NLE because it’s that time of year again…)

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