What You Need to Know About Military Assistance to Civil Disturbances – Forward Observer Shop

What You Need to Know About Military Assistance to Civil Disturbances

In light of future contentious elections, economic conditions, and domestic stability (each of which is particularly vulnerable to disruption), we should examine a distinct possibility.  As described in Title 18, USC Section 1385, the President has the authorization to order military forces to support civil authorities and to aid domestic security efforts through an Act of Congress or where allowed by the Constitution.  These operations are referred to as Military Assistance to Civil Disturbances.

After the Watts Riots of 1965, the U.S. Army drafted a plan for the Defense Department, codenamed Operation GARDEN PLOT.  Since then, U.S. Presidents have authorized both regular army and national guard troops to take part in GARDEN PLOT during the 1992 LA Riots, as well as after 9/11.  The GARDEN PLOT document notes that:

During domestic civil disturbance operations, federal military forces will confront members of the civil populace participating in group acts of violence antagonistic to authority. These acts can fall anywhere along a broad spectrum of violence that encompasses individual acts of terrorism, riots, and insurrection.

Part of our jobs in using intelligence to support SHTF community security is identifying potential scenarios and describing how they could impact our security.  It’s not enough to just be aware that Military Assistance to Civil Disturbances (MACDIS) is an available course of action.  We need to run this scenario through the Intelligence Cycle so that we can identify early warning indicators and be able to forecast realistic expectations of the future.  We can be best prepared when we can achieve early warning of what to expect.

Military Assistance to Civil Disturbances is about restoration of order.  Given this broad mission, potential activities include:

  • Dispersing unlawful assemblies, where we can expect less-lethal weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets, and skirmish lines.  As quickly as possible during an emergency where MACDIS could be authorized, we need to start mapping out which areas are affected by the disturbance and drawing conclusions about the use of force.  Beyond that, we need to identify how the presence and escalation of force will affect our community; will homes in the area be placed on lock down, preventing you from bugging out, or could you experience mobs or rioters being pushed from a nearby area into your community?
  • Patrolling disturbed areas is another activity we’d expect during MACDIS, hence the importance of mapping out known locations where there are ongoing disruptions.  We should have generated intelligence requirements by now and should begin satisfying those requirements:  strength, disposition, weapons, equipment, and vehicles (to name a few) in use by the military force.  The more we know about what’s out there, both in terms of troops and rioters, the more prepared we can be.
  • Preventing the commission of unlawful acts is standard practice in responses to civil disturbances.  Keep in mind that law enforcement and military forces may not be concerned about protecting commercial or private property.  As an intelligence guy, that’s one thing I’m interested in: what are the boundaries of their operations?  What’s their standard operating procedure, or what orders have they been given that define what they can or can’t do.
  • Providing a quick reaction force (QRF) might be necessary where a disturbance has an element of mobility.  For instance, if rioters avoid areas where troops are present, a QRF may be required to have a very quick response to a moving target.  Another common use of QRF is when current forces are overwhelmed and need some support.  When we battle tracked the Ferguson riots, we located where additional tactical teams were staged.  Knowing that information could have been very useful if we lived in Ferguson, MO.
  • Distributing essential goods and providing aid to the populace is a common practice we’ve seen, especially overseas.  These aid distribution locations are places we need to have on our map, so that we can maintain an accurate security picture.  These are places that might incur high traffic and potentially violence, so we may need to avoid these areas if we’re going to bug out.
  • Maintaining essential services can include guarding critical infrastructure or otherwise ensuring that essential services help keep the peace.  One of the worst ways to compound a civil disturbance is the disruption of essential services, like water and electricity, thus creating more unrest.
  • Establishing traffic control points (TCPs) and cordons is a frequent practice to control the flow of traffic in an area.  We saw numerous TCPs when battle tracking the Ferguson riots, and we were able to map them.  Identifying and mapping these TCP locations is a must, and keep in mind that TCPs may not always be static.  We employed 10-15 minute snap TCPs in Iraq to moderate effect when trying to screen the populace for contraband and weapons.

Certainly the topic of martial law is more profound in this community, and unfortunately Military Assistance to Civil Disturbances is often confused with martial law.  There’s a large difference.  For starters, martial law has only been implemented twice in the nation’s history.  Once on a national level during the Civil War and again on a regional level during World War 2.  Military assistance to civil disturbances has occurred numerous times.

Only the President or Congress can declare martial law, whereas federal military assistance is requested at the state level, and the Attorney General advises the President on the appropriate use of force.  While military forces will participate, a Senior Civilian Representative for the Attorney General (SCRAG) remains in control of MACDIS operations and a military representative directs the use of military force to achieve goals outlined by the SCRAG.  All state and local law enforcement agencies remain under the control of state civilians.  Identifying who these officials are and which military units will participate in MACDIS operations could help us determine potential courses of action for the operations.  And the more we know about what’s likely to happen (versus what’s unlikely to happen), the better prepared we can be.


Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper

P.S. If you’re concerned about where we’re headed as a country, whether on the near-end of the spectrum or the far end of the spectrum (social, political and economic instability; domestic conflict; or collapse of empire), and want to stay informed on what the headlines don’t cover, then I invite you to try us out. If you’re not happy within the first two weeks, I’ll refund your monthly or annual subscription cost – no questions asked. You can get access to our intelligence reporting and training area here.



Photo: 330th Military Police train with L.A. Metro, via California National Guard

Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


    1. That’s Aid to Civil Power. The Canucks, were they requested to assist, would deploy without weapons.

      Then again, what the hell would*I* know… it’s not like I was an officer in the Canadian Military or anything..

      Oh, wait, yeah. I was.

  1. My Brothers would never turn on us. Now Obama is changing the Military. The knew milatary may be diferent. Now you have to know what your seeing. Many I.D.ed as Milatary in New Orleans where Black Water.

  2. I was one of those California Army National Guard mobilized during the 1992 LA Riots. My unit was far from the incident in Mt. Shasta (call it 700 miles away) where our armory was. We were BOG at Los Alimitos within 24 hours of alert at 90% strength with C-130s picking us up from the Redding Municipal Airport some 50 miles to the south. D Company, 132nd Engineer BN (CBT), 40th INF DIV.

    1. I was with the 7th ID out of Ord and was on the ground in SCLA on day 3. You CANG guys didnt have firing pins for you 16’s. So our Armour gave ya’ll some of our “Spares”. Not to mention how we were not to have drums in our 249’s Yeah right. We were guarding a power station around Florence, if memory serves me right. I believe a couple of your NG guys shot and killed a person who tried to run them down at a checkpoint.

  3. Internally at rhe county/state level here in Wisconsin, we have these preparations already in the book. Ironicallly, there are some scenarios to cordon off major city and traffic routes, with barricade materials prepositioned (hescos, jersey, wire and bollards), and detailed operational instructions. We have details on securing the river bridge, as well as the ACOE lock/damns on the river. All supported through title 10, 18 and 20 instructions. And it is primarily centered on infrastructure control and gov protection. This includes hospital takeover, food source controls, and guidance for local units to deal with civil unrest.
    One intelligence collection tactic I use as a trained forensic accountant is FOIA requests to gov agencies for fund disbursement- really boring records, unless you can correlate data and search out items. Self storage garage payments, leased shipping and trailer containers, even payments made to fuel companies (just like your credit card/bank statement) are all detailed, including date/time/location metadata. Treasure trove…

  4. Google “mexia martial law” and read about an incident in 1922 where several counties in Texas were, at least technically if not legally, placed under martial law to clean up an oil boomtown. It would be interesting to know how often such incidents occurred in the past, in addition to the “only 2” mentioned in the article.
    There is a good discussion, by the way, of the Mexia troubles in the brand new Frank Hamer biography, just out.

  5. I had noted the same things during the Baltimore riots that you did in Ferguson. By it’s nature, these things are going to be interop cluster-fs, so no matter what they plan, very quickly everything is going to devolve to common frequencies transmitted in the clear.

    Get a scanner, and learn your Bubba COMINT.

  6. Extract from linked Rand publication on the 1965 and 1992 Los Angeles riots:

    “Another difference related to the fire discipline demonstrated by military and law enforcement personnel. In 1965 it was “Katie bar the door.” We had .50 caliber machine guns and we used them. If a sniper shot from behind a concrete wall, we just opened up with a .50 and cut the wall down. If he sniped at us from a rooftop, we cut off the top of the roof. There were problems with that of course; we sus- pect we killed at least five innocent civilians. We were very aware of that in 1992. Sergeants major and senior officers remembered that we had killed innocent people in 1965. It had a big impact on the rules of engagement and how we handled ourselves.”


    I personally know of an incident in 1992 where a military unit was supporting police. The police were going to clear a retrial building and they told the military to “cover them”. When the police moved out across the street towards the building, the military unit opened up with full auto crew served weapons into the building. The police were yelling “whoa whoa whoa! What are you doing!? The soldiers reply was “covering you”

    So I agree things can turn into a CF quite rapidly and with good intentions.

    1. That was a Marine Corp squad. They were rolling with LAPD SWAT. The Corp had there LABs He told me that story, we were 4-5 blocks away when it happened and the freakin net exploded. Everyone on trying to figure out what was happening. I heard one idiot yelling about an ambush.

      1. Cruiser: I guess we’re going after John and Russell. I can’t believe they’re Russian spies. Can you?

        Psycho: All I know is, finally I get to kill somebody.

  7. And if these comments don’t make you believe the military will shoot Americans, there is also the Kent State shooting. Where the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students.
    Yes the American Military WILL open fire on Americans. The military is trained to obey orders, immediately. Also ALL orders are considered lawful UNTIL proved otherwise. So OBEY first, QUESTION second. Any unit failing to obey any order will immediately be stood down, ring leader separated and confined.
    It has happened.

  8. Where in the Constitution does it say the President, Congress or anyone can declare martial law? In fact the term does not exist and they have no such powers other than what they might have granted themselves.

    1. I won’t argue with you, except to say that they believe they have that power and they exercise it. Arguing about constitutionality is like trying to argue with an armed robber whether or not he’s committing a crime. He’s doesn’t care and a stern talking-to won’t persuade him out of criminality.

      1. President Merkin Muffley: General Turgidson, I find this very difficult to understand. I was under the impression that I was the only one in authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
        General “Buck” Turgidson: That’s right, sir, you are the only person authorized to do so. And although I, uh, hate to judge before all the facts are in, it’s beginning to look like, uh, General Ripper exceeded his authority.

  9. My main concern is whether the military will insist they be fully informed of the situation or just ordered to shoot because a group is protesting. Will they stand by their Oath to protect and defend the Constitution? If I was a soldier right now, I would want to make sure that my cause for fighting is just.

  10. I support our government, when they try to maintain order. Just as long as our federal masters “IN NO WAY” interfere with the 1st amendment right to “peaceably assemble”.

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