Haiti earthquake: Awaiting the aid tsunami

by Craig Hooper on January 13, 2010

Five years ago, in days after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, I wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe–a piece that, with the Haiti disaster, remains a relevant cautionary tale today:

The tsunami response, being hailed as one of the biggest U.S. military disaster relief missions in history, has been less effective than portrayed. When a deployment of just 40 navy helicopters requires 6 days, more than 9,000 sailors and $7 billion of military equipment, something, somewhere, has gone wrong, reinforcing Rumsfeld’s belief that the United States needs better tools to project power in the strategically critical zone where land meets sea.

Ships made for controlling the high seas have little utility in crowded, shallow waters. The enormous aircraft carrier off Indonesia, the Abraham Lincoln, has little to offer. With a medical staff of 40 and 17 small helicopters, the floating airbase is a marginally useful asset for anything other than all-out warfare.

A group of three amphibious warfare ships in the arriving expeditionary strike group can do more. Their complement of about 23 large helicopters and landing craft will speed the distribution of fresh water, food and medical care to areas cut off by the tsunami. But three amphibious ships can’t cover 3,000 miles of affected coastline.

An underlying problem is strategic. America simply lacks a presence in shallow intertidal zones. Had fast-moving assets been nearby, the Bush administration, by getting firsthand information from the disaster zone, would have better understood the scope of the tragedy and avoided making an embarrassingly low initial aid offer of $15 million.

This diplomatic fiasco is reason enough to demand an immediate transformation of American military posture. But Rumsfeld’s vision of a future Navy isn’t perfect. He overlooks the mundane nonfighting aspects of present-day military power. That is a problem for two reasons. First, the United States has a long history of using the military for diplomatic and humanitarian gain. Second, it is often the military support system that does the most in furthering American aims…

With the Haiti earthquake, we’ll discover that a lot has changed in the space of five years.  

Today, in the aftermath of this earthquake, the initial response will be enormous.  Unlike the Indonesian Tsunami, our initial aid may end up becoming a long-term commitment–lest we wish to see a desperate human tsunami start out for the U.S. from a shattered Haiti. Help sent to Haiti, however, may also pull assets from Afghanistan, forcing policymakers into an ugly debate over the relative importance of the Western Hemisphere vs. Afghanistan and Iraq.

At present, prior commitments are taking a backseat to lending a needed hand.  A whole raft of ships are heading to help.  The USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) will stop off at Mayport to become, largely, a helicopter carrier (populated with Army helicopters, perhaps?).  Not only will this highlight the importance of having a second carrier-ready port on the East Coast (and, in the process, hand ADM John Harvey’s call for strategic homeporting some extra “omph!”), this will give the Carl Vinson crew a chance to grab extra gear for the task ahead.

The USS Bataan (LHD-5), USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43) and USS Carter Hall (LSD 50) are going to sea, and will likely prep for Haiti duties.  Amphibs are the poor bloody infantry of disaster-response operations, and this deployment should be expected.  That said, the USS Bataan is familiar with MV-22 “Osprey” operations, suggesting that the 24th MEU’s attached combat-ready MV-22 squadron may get it’s first real humanitarian/support to civil authorities mission.  The ships with the 24th MEU may go as we

ll, but we’ll see. 

An Osprey deployment to Haiti will be high-profile test–an unexpected tasking, done under a full-bore media glare.  It will likely not have the maintenance padding (the extra spare parts and private maintainers to allow for “aggressive sparing“) Ospreys enjoy on their overseas junkets.  This is a real test.  Now, to the Osprey’s benefit, this is low-altitude work in almost ideal conditions–and, as I’ve said before, a perfect way to demonstrate this platform’s effectiveness.  If they go, expect to see the Osprey pressed into moving critically-injured foreign nationals from Haiti to Guantanamo for staging/stabilization and evacuation–a high-profile mission where speed is of the essence.  (Might we see an MV-22 land on a U.S. aircraft carrier?  I mean, in an emergency, anything might happen…) 

Aviation, however, will be a sideshow.  The ports are key.  And the Coast Guard is already reporting that they’re damaged.   

The earthquake’s havoc was challenging the ability to move supplies into the hardest hit areas, U.S. officials said. The damage threatened supply lines to the impoverished city and country, which relies in large part on ship-borne deliveries…

“The initial reports we are getting, it [the sea port] is very heavily damaged,” U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. “Jim” Watson IV, director of Atlantic area operations, said in an interview from Portsmouth, Va. “If the port is severely damaged, that makes it very, very difficult” to get relief supplies in.

This situation offers amphibious vessels–the ones with well decks–an opportunity to really strut their stuff–giving the Marines another high-profile means to demonstrate why their next-generation big-deck amphibs need their well-decks returned

As far as harbor exploitation goes, the USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) will likely have a hard time approaching a pier–meaning that her value as a large hospital will be reduced. 

It’d be nice if the shallow-draft JHSVs were in service right now, but instead we’ll see if the former Hawaiian Superferries will be utilized or if the PCU Independence (LCS-2) gets orders to forgo commissioning and get underway for a mission.  If the LCS-2 were sent, that’d be one heck of a familiarization cruise–but why not?  Even if it just was to serve as a shuttle, what’s there to loose?  Isn’t the LCS meant to be expendable?  But, then again, the LCS-2 program office shouldn’t feel too bad…with the newly commissioned USS New York (LPD 21) stuck pier-side, the LCS-2 folks have some room to maneuver.

Will the local harbors need salvage expertise and resources?  Will this disaster demonstrate our relative shortcomings in salvage assets?  ADM Harvey may be right to worry about the utility of harbor infrastructure to blockade a port–but having a second port available won’t solve the problem.  How would we be able to open a blocked U.S. port quickly–if we had to?  Are we ready to do what we need to do–if we needed to do it?  I don’t think so–and Norfolk isn’t the only problem, either.

We’re in the early stages of this thing.  There are a lot of ways this post-disaster situation may evolve.  But, right here, we’ve got an eerie warning of the future world–full of weak states crumbling under the blows of an unexpected natural disaster.



Craig Hooper January 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Take a walk on the upper deck of the Comfort. Take a good long look at the gig. The one with crumbling white paint.

Now think about how you’re going to effectively put a 5,000 bed hospital to work with a few launches and one helo pad–and no pier.

Imagine a JHSV with a containerized, mobile, expeditionary hospital–complete with staff–making the quick trip from Mayport to Haiti. Mark my words, with a seven or so foot draft, it’d be able to find a place to close with the shore and deploy the vehicle ramp. Heck of a lot faster than a deep-draft vessel will…

Matt January 15, 2010 at 11:15 am

I disagree with your premise that disaster response resides on the ability to access shallow water. Disaster response specifically in this case is all about mass and how much can be transported quickly. Lots of hospital beds, lots of material and lots of personnel. To do this, you need big, deep draft ships that can get the people and goods close by and then vertical lift, or smaller landing craft to get it ashore.

A fleet of LCS’ would be useless here as they have minimal lift and personnel carrying capacity. All the HSV’s won’t work because there aren’t serviceable port facilities.

The ancient, cold-war era aircraft carriers you decry in your Boston Globe piece and the slow moving Comfort along with bulk carrier cargo ships are what’s needed to get aid to Haiti. 40 helicopters may seem like not enough, but it is 40 more than any other nation can get there (and sustain).

Gunner January 14, 2010 at 10:54 am

I predict LCS-2 Commissioning will NOT be moved up or canceled. Too many VIPs have flight arrangements with non-refundable tickets or have altered their personal schedules to attend to have a mere disaster interfere.

However, I would expect to see her get underway immediately after the ceremony…

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