When a devastating earthquake struck the Caribbean island nation of Haiti in January 2010, destroying its airport and harbor facilities, President Barack Obama pledged an immediate and all-out rescue and humanitarian relief effort.
With the Department of Defense‘s (DoD’s) joint Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) working with the State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as primary overseers, the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) quickly began organizing military logistics support through its service components – Military Sealift Command (MSC), Air Mobility Command (AMC), and the Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC).
The military effort was greatly helped by the short distance from the continental United States (CONUS) and the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, the demand for military airlift, sealift, and surface transport also came in the midst of a major drawdown of troops and realignment of materiel in Iraq and corresponding buildup of both in Afghanistan.
“One of our big challenges was how to not slow down the flow of forces to CENTCOM [Central Command],” noted Brig. Gen. Mike Lally, TRANSCOM’s director of Operations and Plans. “On 10 December, President Obama announced a 40,000-man force increase by August into Afghanistan, while at the same time, we have a large drawdown in Iraq, from 110,000 down to 50,000. And my boss [Gen. Duncan J. McNabb] was told not to slow down either of those efforts while still taking care of Haiti. It was a big balancing act to manage the flow of forces.
“From other commands, we took aircraft doing things like training missions – so we stopped some training for a couple of weeks. Because Haiti is so close to the U.S., with a handful of aircraft we could deploy a lot of capability because we were able to get two trips a day, compared to four or five days to go to Afghanistan and back. So we did not impact our support to CENTCOM, although we did impact training for a short while and did reduce support to people like PACOM [Pacific Command] and NORTHCOM [Northern Command, which is responsible for CONUS].”
MSC, AMC, and SDDC also took an immediate “forward leaning” posture, following a directive issued by McNabb two years earlier for each service component to take immediate action in response to an emergency event without waiting for official orders to move down the chain of command.
“Our component commanders understood the general’s intent. We had laid out their authorities and mission requirements and they were leaning forward and doing smart things. For example, people knew we had a Joint Task Force Port Opening [JTF-PO] capability and the morning after the earthquake a port opening commander in Jacksonville [Fla.] was on the phone to his boss saying he could put together a package and be in Haiti in a matter of days. Gen. McNabb and I were in Afghanistan when we got the call from his boss and we approved that launch,” Lally recalled.
“It was the same with the Comfort [hospital ship], the crane ships, some high-speed ferries – MSC leaned forward and said they wanted to do those things and we rapidly gave them the verbal orders to go ahead while we worked with SOUTHCOM and Joint Staff to make sure all the proper requests were put in place and validated. But each of those components understood the intent, the urgency of this emergency and leaned forward, doing all the right kinds of things while keeping everyone informed.”
TRANSCOM also tapped into its commercial partnerships to expedite both air and sealift and, through the State Department, quickly won a key concession from an old adversary.
“On day three of commercial aircraft flying in, one of the carriers said if we could get overflight permission from Cuba, there was more they could do. We got that turned around in about 24 hours,” Lally said. “It typically is a tricky maneuver to get into Gitmo based on Cuban airspace, but Cuba quickly authorized some overflight permissions for our commercial partners flying between Gitmo and Haiti. Those strong partnerships between TRANSCOM and our commercial partners, in addition to our components on both the air and sea side, make us a powerful organization.”
Close and constant coordination among all the players was critical, not only to getting initial supplies to Haiti, but also in efforts to clear and reopen the airport and seaport at the island’s capital of Port-au-Prince. That involved not only all of the military components and USAID, but also dozens of other nations, the U.N., the International Red Cross, and more.
“I have an operations center here [Scott Air Force Base, Ill.] with representatives from my three components, each with their own ops center. As requirements came in to me, I would study those, figure out how best to solve them, then pass mission taskings down to my components to execute,” Lally said. “At the same time, SOUTHCOM stood up an ops center to which I sent liaison officers. I also sent down a six-man deployable distributions operation center team and a director of mobility forces with the air component to help coordinate aircraft and work closely with the Joint Staff, which had its own ops center.
“We talked to USAID, the lead federal agent, through SOUTHCOM, where they had people, and through the Joint Staff, which put an LNO [liaison office] team with USAID. We had twice-daily updates with the Joint Staff and SOUTHCOM, with USAID participating, so we maintained situational awareness, understanding the daily priorities, and could synchronize our activities to make sure we were in alignment.”
The Airlift Component
With both the airport and seaport at Port-au-Prince unusable in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the first deliveries were made by airdrop. At the same time, AMC worked with SDDC and others to repair runways and support facilities, eventually raising the daily air traffic at Port-au-Prince from a pre-disaster rate of fewer than a dozen flights a day to a peak relief rate of more than 160 a day.
“In the early stages, we did multiple C-130 and C-17 airdrop deliveries to areas that were secured away from the airport as point relief – more than 152 bundles of MREs [Meals, Ready-to-Eat] and bottled water, 246,000 pounds of air cargo,” said Brig. Gen. Randy Kee, vice commander of AMC’s 618th Tanker/Airlift Control Center. “Our very first mission was to carry a search and rescue [SAR] team – and we did several more, the first out of Los Angeles – to try to find people trapped under collapsed buildings in the precious few days right after the earthquake.
“Essentially, all of AMC was fully engaged from the very beginning of the relief effort and continues today. We brought in airplanes, crews, maintenance, contingency response, and command and control of our enterprise for more than 2,100 sorties to date [the end of March]. More than 24,000 people were involved, both airlift and air refueling, in Haiti and CONUS, delivering more than 13,000 tons of cargo. We also refueled both
AMC and other responding aircraft, conducting more than 60 air refueling sorties, delivering more than 885,000 pounds of fuel to other aircraft.”
Some lessons learned from AMC operations in Southwest Asia proved crucial to the Haitian relief effort, he added, primarily the ability to create and work closely with regional Air Mobility Air Operations Centers (AOCs) to seamlessly integrate strategic and theater airlift and refueling.
“That is the same context applied to several air operations centers working in support of Haiti, such as the 612th AOC out of Davis-Monthan AFB [Ariz.], the 12th Air Force and, of course, the JTF for Haiti relief in Port-au-Prince. That allowed us to build on each other’s knowledge and understanding of the task and how to respond to it,” he said. “The 601st out of Tyndall [AFB, Fla.], working directly with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], orchestrated the centralized control of arrivals and departures in and out of Port-au-Prince. Our work with them and the 612th allowed us to make sure our requirements were met and we had the coordinated airspace slots available to move lifesaving cargo and personnel, including a significantly large contingent of the 18th Airborne out of Fort Bragg [N.C.].
“Those relationships are critical to seamlessly lash up needed people, cargo, aeromedical evacuation, and the evacuation of American citizens, to collectively manage our assets and work requirements to deconflict and synchronize air mobility relief in a complementary and not a competing fashion. For example, working with the 623rd AOC, out of AFSOC [Air Force Special Operations Command] at Hurlburt Field, Fla., was essential in the early days. The first responder was an AFSOC airplane and they did some of the initial work with Haitians in Port-au-Prince while we built up our contingency forces.”
While TRANSCOM is primarily geared to support military operations – from training and peacekeeping to combat – how such missions are conducted differs only slightly from humanitarian relief. The biggest differences: Typically, there is no concern about being fired upon during a humanitarian mission, but there often is a much higher concern about ensuring aircraft rushing to the scene from countries and organizations throughout the world are safely handled. Both also require a close inter-service relationship.
“In the overall logistics effort, AMC provides the air component for TRANSCOM as part of the defense transportation system, working alongside MSC and SDDC. Because of how quickly you can move things by air, we usually are the first responders, bringing time sensitive/mission critical people and equipment. Because of the ability to move by hours rather than days, TRANSCOM looks to AMC and its subordinate units early on,” Lally said.
“We move about 16 percent of all validated requirements of the defense transportation system. There is an intermodal or multimodal decision on how things move, sometimes using a combination of air, sea, and land. For example, it may move from a seaport of embarkation to be picked up by air to move onward to delivery [to] its final destination or to be moved further inland by convoy.”
Although the Haitian relief effort was still ongoing when he was interviewed in March 2010, Lally was already working on lessons learned and reviewing the effort put forth by his team.
“I can’t say how proud I am of this team, working as AMC’s nerve center here at Scott AFB [Ill.], and the synchronization of the collective efforts of all the people and agencies working on this relief effort,” he said. “People were not saying, ‘I can’t,’ but ‘How can I?’ Obviously, this command and nation have the capacity to rapidly deliver either a clenched fist or an open hand. In this case, we delivered an open hand to help the people of Haiti.”
The Sealift Component
MSC’s sealift effort benefited greatly from the short distance to Haiti and the availability, both in CONUS and already at sea in the area, of a wide range of ships that could deliver cargo even without a functioning port.
“The initial response was by air, but to get a lot of the heavier equipment in required sealift. That came in a variety of ways, using a wide range of capabilities,” noted MSC Commander Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby. “I think we were a critical enabler to the effort down there when you look at the range of capability MSC sent, beginning with Comfort, which was the face of the U.S. response in Haiti. But also relief supplies and heavy equipment aboard our sealift ships, the crane ship that enabled flow through the port in an in-stream offloading capacity, and our rescue and salvage ship, which happened to be nearby with an Army dive team onboard, to provide the initial survey of the port and is still there today supporting repairs to the piers.
“We sent down one of our oceanographic survey ships to provide a detailed survey of the harbor, approaches to the harbor, and the beaches where we landed our linerage. We also had our Navy Auxiliary ships, the oilers and dry cargo ships, that provided sustainment to the fleet so they could remain on station, bringing supplies to them from CONUS. And while we played a very large role afloat, ashore we sent our expeditionary support unit, which is trained to operate a seaport in austere conditions. They sailed down on the super ferry and set up operations to help the Haitian port authority get supplies sequenced through the port.”
Overall, MSC responded with 21 ships and nearly one-third of its total manpower, pulling vessels from each of its primary mission groups, along with commercial ships contracted under the “liner program.”
In addition to the record-setting deployment of the hospital ship Comfort – which set sail in three days rather than the five it is required to meet and took on its first patients immediately upon arrival – MSC began retasking ships closest to Haiti for initial response under McNabb’s pre-existing “forward leaning” authorization.
Within 24 hours of the earthquake, the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn, part of the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force, sailed for Haiti, where it was joined by two MSC dry cargo/ammunition ships – USNS Sacagawea and USNS Lewis and Clark. The USNS Grasp was diverted from a previous SOUTHCOM mission, with the Army’s 544th Dive Engineering Company aboard, and was among the first ships on scene, immediately starting work to clear the Port-au-Prince harbor.
The Special Mission Program oceanographic survey ship USNS Henson also was involved in surveying the harbor floor and identifying potential hazards to ships bringing relief supplies. Meanwhile, the USNS 1st Lt. Jack Lummus, a Maritime Prepositioning Ship, accelerated an ongoing offload at Blount Island Marine Terminal (Jacksonville, Fla.) and was reloaded with a tailored package of Marine Corps construction equipment and supplies, along with cargo for USAID and other government agencies. Lummus delivered the first major influx of heavy equipment and over-the-beach delivery capability to Haiti, while its sister ship, the USNS PFC Dewayne T. Williams, arrived with significant Army and Seabee equipment and rolling stock.
MSC also took operational control of four Maritime Administration (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force ships. The crane ship SS Cornhusker State assisted with joint-logistics-over-the-shore movement of relief supplies to shore from cargo ships unable to use the devastated port. SS Cape May delivered Seabee construction gear, three sets of lighterage, and a roll-on/roll-off (RORO) discharge facility, which Buzby termed key enablers to move equipment and supplies ashore.
“We actually had a lot of excess capability, activating a couple of ships that never were needed, as well as others that were available but we didn’t need to activate and a host of additional Ready Reserve Force shipping,” he said. “We were blessed that the lines of communication and distances were fairly short, so we were able to respond quickly with a lot of equipment.
“The Indonesian tsunami was a long way from anywhere, but with Haiti, we could airlift a couple of times a day and sealift in just a couple of days. I was very impressed with how well everything worked – our equipment, our readiness level, the ability to respond within promised time lines – even sooner with the Comfort. That gives me a great deal of confidence that we will be able to respond to future missions.”
The Ground Component
The Army’s SDDC sent two of its newly created Rapid Port Opening Elements (RPOs) to Haiti, the 688th to the Port-au-Prince airport and the 689th to the seaport, as the lead component, working with their sister services, in bringing both facilities back into operation. The RPOs operate on a 12-hour call time for an airfield and 36 hours for a seaport, primarily for initial reconnaissance, and met or exceeded both time lines in Haiti.
“Once the earthquake happened, we reacted immediately. Haiti is what we train for – a classic Joint Task Force Port Opening mission, just the way Gen. McNabb had put it together,” said Col. Jeffrey B. Helmick, commander of SDDC’s 597th Transportation Terminal Group.
“I can’t really think of any other country or international group with that capability. Our ability to react quickly to any kind of mission was proven once again in Haiti. The president and secretary of defense set the bar and, from my vantage point as a brigade commander, all I was told was ‘go.’ There was nothing stopping me from getting down there with our team.”
As with other TRANSCOM components, SDDC had to re-task some of its ongoing and short-term operations elsewhere.
“The 688th had a warning order to go to Afghanistan and that’s what we were preparing for. So all we did was repack for warm weather and head for Haiti,” Helmick said, noting once the 688th and its equipment were back from Haiti, they began preparations for whatever mission they are given next.
“Given the nature of this business, you never know. It could be another humanitarian assistance effort or a military operation; you just have to be prepared for whatever contingency is thrown your way. Just pick any place in PACOM or AFRICOM [Africa Command] or any other command and these units could easily be deployed anywhere at any time. And I expect they will.”
So long as there is a DoD presence in Haiti performing follow-on relief and reconstruction, the island nation will be an ongoing mission for Helmick and SDDC – shipping, documenting, tracking, and moving equipment to Haiti and, as required, back to CONUS. But the first few weeks and months of the relief effort held no surprises.
“It has been absolutely phenomenal, exactly following how we put this in doctrine, how the soldiers and airmen trained,” he said. “There were a lot of lessons learned and there are things we’re working on, SOP-wise, but we didn’t drop the ball on anything. We got there quickly, established the seaport, and began moving cargo inland exactly as it had been written up. We have a pretty good balance and have handled all these missions pretty well, especially with the drawdown in Iraq and buildup in Afghanistan, without missing a beat.
“There were some lessons learned in Haiti, indicating a need for some additional materiel handling equipment for containers, more life support stuff, things we’re picking up in after-action reports. But by and large, that is the nature of being in the Army – there is always a better way or better piece of equipment to make the mission go easier. But we’re very adaptive and always looking. Even so, what we have now is pretty good.”
Perhaps the most important result of the Haiti effort for SDDC, however, was validation of the RPO concept and implementation.
“These rapid port openings are a unique part of TRANSCOM, able to get any place in the world very quickly. They are the way of the future – and with the success SDDC had in Haiti, I think we will be expected to deliver the same professional services in the future, regardless of mission,” Helmick said.
“There are not too many militaries in the world that can do this level of austere access. The Brits have a world-class outfit, but to a smaller scale. What makes us unique is, from the Army side of the house, we have logistics support vessels and flat-bottomed vessels able to carry many containers. That is unique. Everybody moves by containers and those vessels, with their shallow draft, can get into areas an average ship cannot.”
In reviewing the job TRANSCOM, MSC, AMC, and SDDC performed during the critical early weeks of the Haitian relief effort, Lally said he has identified four major lessons learned to be applied to future military and humanitarian/disaster relief logistics efforts.
“No. 1 was our capability to rapidly deploy forces and open the air and seaports, a relatively new capability we set up the last two years, sourced by the Army and Air Force. Haiti is the first time we’ve used both air and sea teams and it worked very, very well. I am using that same capability today in Afghanistan, as we try to expand capacity there, deploying forces forward from TRANSCOM to open up airfields and seaports to improve velocity.
“Second is TRANSCOM’s acquisition authority, a very powerful, competent contracting organization for … air, sea, and truck or transload operations. Because the whole port was damaged by the earthquake and SOUTHCOM does not have a big contracting capability, we contracted with one of our commercial carriers to assess the port, were able to contract salvage teams to clear out parts of the port and two large barges with cranes so we had both a lift-on/lift-off and RORO capability. Without those, there was no way to do offload into the Haitian port. But our partnership with commercial carriers and power of contracting enabled us to give the verbal go-ahead two days after the earthquake and they had people on the ground doing site surveys very quickly.
“The third lesson learned deals with NORTHCOM and their interagency piece. Similar to disaster relief in the U.S., there is a big role for interagency efforts – DHS, USAID, World Food Bank, Red Cross, etc. The interagency piece in the Pentagon works okay for setting policy between the Joint Staff and interagency, but when you have operations being executed, having the perspective of the person having to solve the problem and get assistance is crucial. NORTHCOM has a very strong interagency piece, due to their relief efforts, and rapidly deployed a 75-man element to SOUTHCOM to assist them in framing the issues, push them back up to the Joint Staff and make sure timely answers and policy guidance were distributed.
“Fourth is something we probably need to improve upon – theater staging for onward movement and distribution. TRANSCOM rapidly established the air and sea bridge, got the airport and seaport up and running, and dramatically increased capability, primarily on the sea side. Prior to the earthquake, maybe 230 containers a day came into the port; within 30 days, we put 1,200 a day through that port. They were putting perhaps 13 aircraft a day through the airport; within four days, we had over 160 aircraft in and out of that airfield every day. But then how do you rapidly put forces into Haiti to receive and onward move those supplies? Which makes theater opening one area we can improve on.”
This article was first published in the 2010 Defense Logistics: Supporting the Warfighter supplement to The Year in Defense.