We’ve seen the utter devastation of Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti. And by now, you may have heard that the US is starting to send relief and aid. Let’s take a quick glance at what some of the services are doing.
Haiti was a mess before the massive earthquake. Some of you may recall that the US military intervened in Haiti back in 94 because of political instability.
In this case, the military (and civil branches of our government) are intervening to provide humanitarian assistance.
First on the scene has been the US Coast Guard. Recon overflights by USCG HC-130s have provided the “first look” at what has been damaged. They are looking at different things than a news crew might. For instance, while a news crew looks for the most emotionally moving issues, the overflight looked to see what infrastructure was in place to support further operations, such as what airfields appear usable, and what is the condition of the port facilities (not good, it appears).
Coast Guard helicopters have also already evacuated several US citizens for medical treatment, and the USCG C-130s will (or may have already) provided evacuation to non-injured US citizens.
Next are several Coast Guard cutters. They won’t be able to provide much in the way of direct relief, but will provide greater information for follow-on forces and some command and control assets to marshall the first wave of relief forces, until they can provide their own control.
The Navy of course, is jumping in with both feet. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, already at sea, is enroute, and should arrive today. Aircraft carriers may not be the best platform for humanitarian missions, but they ain’t all bad. They have a nuclear powered fresh water plant, and they make a great heliport. It looks like the Vinson has loaded aboard a couple squadrons of Navy helos to support relief efforts. Carriers also have a nice pool of manpower available to help with the logistics.
The Navy is also sending the hospital ship USNS Comfort. That’s gonna take a little while. The Comfort is held on a “5-day alert” status. The ship has a crew on board, but its medical staff are all at their “day jobs” and it takes a little while to round them up. Then it takes a little while to get there.
In addition, the Navy is sending several amphibious warfare ships to Haiti. ‘Gators, as they are fondly known in the Navy, are very useful for humanitarian missions. They can carry and distribute large volumes of cargo in places with little or no port infrastructure. They can operate and support large numbers of helicopters. They have excellent on-board hospital facilities. They also carry a lot of Marines, which can provide a ready pool of trained and well organized manpower to aid with search and rescue, distribution of supplies, triage, evaluation and evacuation of the injured. The ‘gators also have excellent command and control facilities, which they can use both to organize US forces, but also help non-governmental organizations with their communication problems.
The Army is getting involved as well, of course. They will be deploying a battalion of troops to provide manpower and a small command and control element. Behind the scenes, US based elements will be getting the logistics rolling. If there’s one thing the Army is good at (all the services, really), it’s moving large amounts of stuff to places that aren’t used to getting large amounts of stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Army helicopters operating from the Carl Vinson, either. They’ve done that before (in fact, the Navy used one of its carriers as a helicopter carrier for Army helos in the ’94 intervention in Haiti- the first time they’d done that).
The Air Force will provide the bulk of air transport to move relief supplies. Expect to see a lot of C-130s flying in water and humanitarian daily rations, as well as blankets, medicines and other supplies.
Coordinating all these efforts is the US Southern Command, which has responsibility of all US operations in Latin America. They’ll be the folks coordinating the military effort, trying to see that stuff gets where it is needed most.
As a practical matter, using the military for humanitarian operations is terribly efficient. It’s expensive, and the platforms and people are being used in ways they weren’t intended to be used. Still, the military has gotten fairly good at it. We’ve seen the military conduct disaster relief operations in the wake of the tsunami of 2005 and several other natural disasters around the world, as well as in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. One thing the military is very good at is learning what they did right, and what they did wrong during those operations. Still, there is only so much the military, or anyone, can do in this case. The loss of like in Haiti is horrific. The best we can hope for now is to prevent widespread disease, and to give these poor people a fighting chance at mere survival. Please pray for them.