The Universal Adversary Mindset

Some of you are probably familiar with the concept of the Universal Adversary (UA). From previous Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) doctrine, UA is “a fictionalized adversary created by compiling known terrorist modifications, doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures in live, virtual, and constructive simulations. The UA is based on real realistic threats … providing participants with a realistic, capabilities-based opponent.” UA is often executed by a Red Team, which serves as an exercise-controlled opposing force for participants.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard less and less of the Universal Adversary concept. DHS used to have a UA Program supporting terrorism-based prevention and responses exercises, dating back to the early 2000s, but lately I’ve neither seen or heard anything about the continuation of the program or capability. (can any readers confirm the life or death of this capability?)

Regardless, the concept of UA offers a fair amount of opportunity, not only within the Prevention Mission Area, but across all of exercise design and perhaps other areas of preparedness – yes, even across all hazards. Of course, I recognize the difference between human perpetrators and other hazards, but just stick with me on this journey.

The fact of the matter is that we so often seem to have, as the 9/11 Commission Report made the phrase infamous, a failure of imagination in our preparedness. I’m not saying we need to go wild and crazy, but we do need to think bigger and a bit more creatively – not only in the hazards that threaten us, but also in our strategies to address them.

The UA concept is applied based on a set of known parameters, though even that gives me some concern. In the Prevention world, this means that a Red Team will portray a known force, such as ISIS, based upon real intel and past actions. We all know from seeing mutual fund commercials on TV that past performance does not predict future results. While humans (perpetrators and defenders alike) gravitate toward patterns, these rules can always and at any time be broken. The same can be said for instances of human error or negligence (see the recent and terrible explosion in the Port of Beirut), or in regard to someone who we have a love-hate relationship with… Mother Nature. We need to be ever vigilant of something different occurring.

There is the ever-prolific debate of scenario-based preparedness vs capability-based preparedness. In my opinion, both are wrong and both are right. The two aren’t and shouldn’t be set against each other as if they can’t coexist. That’s one mindset we need to move away from as we venture further into this. We need to continue with thinking about credible worst-case scenarios, which will still be informed by previous occurrences of a hazard, where applicable, but we need to keep our minds open and thinking creatively. Fundamentally, as the UA concept exists to foil and outthink exercise participants, we need to challenge and outthink ourselves across all areas of preparedness and all hazards.

A great example of how we were foiled, yet again, by our traditional thinking is the current Coronavirus pandemic. Practically every pandemic response plan I’ve read got it wrong. Why? Because most pandemic plans were based upon established guidance which emergency managers, public health officials, and the like got in line and followed to the letter, most without thinking twice about it. I’m not being critical of experts who tried to predict the next pandemic – they fell into the same trap most of us do in a hazard analysis – but the guidance for many years has remained fairly rigid. That said, I think the pandemic plans that exist shouldn’t be sent through the shredder completely. The scenarios those plans were based upon are still potentially valid, but Coronavirus, unfortunately, started playing the game in another ball field. We should have been able to anticipate that – especially after the 2003 SARS outbreak, which we pretty much walked away from with ignorant bliss.

It’s not to say that we can anticipate everything and anything thrown at us, but a bit of creativity can go a long way. Re-think and re-frame your hazards. Find a thread and pull it; see where it leads you. Be a little paranoid. Loosen up a bit. Brainstorm. Freeform. Improv. Have a hazard analysis party! (I come darn close to suggesting an adult beverage – take that as you will). We can apply the same concepts when designing exercises. Consider that in the world of natural hazards, Mother Nature is a Universal Adversary. Any time we hope to have out-thought her, she proves us wrong, and with considerable embarrassment. We also try to out-think the oft stupidity and negligence of our fellow humans… clearly, we’ve not been able to crack that nut yet.

“Think smarter, not harder” is such an easy thing to say, but difficult, often times, to do. So much of what we do in emergency management is based on traditional practices, most of which have valid roots, but so often we seem reluctant to think beyond those practices. When the media reports that a disaster was unexpected, why the hell wasn’t it expected? Consider that many of our worst disasters are the ones we never thought of. Challenge yourself. Challenge others. It is not in the best interests of this profession or for the people we serve to stay stuck in the same modes of thinking. Be progressive. Break the mold. Do better.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®