Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org).
Pacific Partnership 2018 (PP18) is the largest multi-lateral humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR) preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Pacific Region, designed to enhance preparedness, resiliency, and capacity.
During this year’s Pacific Partnership, more than 900 Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen along with 18 partner and host nations have been working side-by-side to increase capacity to respond to humanitarian crises whenever and wherever they occur in the region, which known for earthquakes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. It is a matter of when, not if, the next disaster strikes. And these disasters transcend borders.
A pair of Military Sealift Command ships were the primary platforms for the partnership activities—the 65,000-ton hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and the 1,500-ton expeditionary fast transport USNS Brunswick (T-EPF 6). During PP18, the ships called at ports in the Republic of Palau; Federated States of Micronesia; Indonesia; Malaysia; Sri Lanka; Vietnam; Thailand and Japan.
The two ships are very different. Mercy is a former oil tanker—built in 1976 and converted to a hospital ship ten years later—that is a fully-equipped floating hospital with 80 intensive care beds, 11 surgery suites, and accommodations for more than 1,300 people. She is a steam powered ship capable of 17 knots, and normally kept in a reduced operating status until activated for training, exercises like Pacific Partnerships, or actual HA/DR emergencies. Her PP18 counterpart, Brunswick is a new type of ship in naval service. Brunswick is a high-speed ferry, with waterjet propulsion, capable of speeds in excess of 40 knots, with a shallower draft allowing her to get into smaller ports. She can load equipment and vehicles into her 20,000 sq. ft. mission bay with her roll on/roll off ramp and carry 312 people in airline-type seating.
Whether it was the big white ship with the bold red crosses on her sides, or the shiny aluminum catamaran, the ships and their mission received a lot of high-level attention.
Rear Adm. Don Gabrielson, who is Commander Naval Logistics Group Western Pacific, Commander of Task Force 73 and Commander of the U.S. Navy Region Singapore, said Pacific Partnership is about engagement, and to demonstrate American resolve to support allies and partners in the region. “It’s a core, strategic interest to the United States of America – to be deeply engaged in this part of the world. And that will not change. Just look at a map of Southeast Asia. Some might say that at some point that there will be a fight again in this part of the world–and it’ll be a really short fight – so there’s no reason to be engaged here. But if you don’t engage in this part of the world, it will guarantee that the fight will be really short. In fact, it will be over before it even begins. And so our core strategic interest lies in protecting the system of values that we helped create – we led the creation and the implementation and the continuance of those values – and it’s our interest to continue to work on that. And that’s a geopolitical statement as a military person, but I believe that’s why we are here as a visible, concrete example of the commitment of the United States of America to stability in this part of the world.”
Speaking at the welcoming ceremony for Mercy’s PP18 mission at Port Klang, Malaysia, U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia Kamala Lakhdhir said that Pacific Partnership was a highlight for the embassy team and the counterparts in the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF). “Community relations outreach and subject matter expert exchange engagement provide wonderful examples of people-to-people diplomacy. The best part of Pacific Partnership is watching Malaysia and our partners and friends, both civilian and military, working together to prepare to help other people around the region.”
“While Pacific Partnership builds on our legacy of strong cooperation and defense ties, it also facilitates multi-agency cooperation and coordination as well as showcase our shared commitment to disaster resiliency and response, public health, cultural exchanges and regional security,” Lakhdhir said.
Lt. Gen Dato’ Abdul Halim Bin Hj Jalal, chief of staff of the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) said that Malaysia first participated as a host nation in 2016, but that Malaysia has been participating in Pacific Partnership since 2006 providing whatever support possible. “This year, Mercy and Brunswick will provide a very unique experience to enhance relations of participating nations and the capacity, competency and interoperability between nations for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This is part of our effort to minimize the impact and the suffering of people after a crisis.”
Capt. David Bretz, who is commander of Destroyer Squadron Thirty-One, based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and mission commander for PP18, said that said Pacific Partnership strengthens the civilian and military relationship so crucial for HA/DR missions. “My hope is that the relationships we build here will foster continued partnership between all of our countries in the years to come. These partnerships will be critical when the next disaster strikes the Pacific. Because although it gives me no pleasure to say this, it is a matter of when, not if the next natural disaster happens. We have a deep respect for nature, which does not recognize national borders. But if we continue to build the skills and lines of communication started during this Pacific Partnership mission, we will be able to respond far more effectively than if we tried to go it alone.”
Bretz said the Mercy and Brunswick port visits in Malaysia would involve visits to soup kitchens, construction projects at schools, medical assist visits to clinics, band performances in the community, tree plantings, and HA/DR exercises with local authorities.
Preparing for the next disaster
According to High Commissioner Andrew Goledzinowski of the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, participating in Pacific Partnership makes total sense. “First, this is our geography–this is where we live and where we feel at home and so it’s always our first priority to work with the region. And then secondly, the U.S. is our most important security partner, and has been for a very long time and I suspect will be forever. And then thirdly, it’s the substance itself. We Australians don’t always come up with a good idea but we know one when we see it.”
The devastating Boxing Day tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, triggered by the massive Sumatra-Anadaman earthquake in the Indian Ocean, causing fatalities in 14 countries, is the impetus for Pacific Partnership.
“It was a huge event that transformed not just the demography of the region – a quarter of a million people left the face of the earth – but it transformed the politics and a lot of the relationships. At the time Australia had something of a tense relationship with Indonesia for various reasons, but when that tsunami struck, our country made a big commitment to help Indonesia. It’s a country of a quarter of a billion people, and they’re our closest neighbor. We cannot afford to not have a good relationship with them. I would even argue to say that the democracy that you have in Indonesia today is not unrelated to that natural disaster.
Another consequence of all of that has been the appreciation of the U.S. that we have to become better at managing disasters collectively. So the U.S. came up with the idea of this Pacific Partnership program to strengthen resilience, to build capacity, and to enhance preparedness and interoperability. And, as soon as you suggested it, I think we all probably said, ‘Snap! That’s exactly what we want to do as well.’
“There is an immediate value of building capacity for our partners,” Goledzinowski said. “People can see it. There’s a less visible political-public diplomacy effect in having this ship come to here-, and having all these senior officers on deck to remind people the U.S. is still very much committed to the region.”
Goledzinowski admired the Mercy and its capability. The hospital ship was activated and left San Diego just a few days after the Boxing Day disaster. “That was God’s grace that the Mercy arrived so quickly when the tsunami hit,” he said.
But he understands it might not always be available. “It’s a pretty sizeable piece of kit.”
Brunswick is similar to an Australian naval ship, HMAS Jervis Bay, that provided valuable military support and Humanitarian assistance to Timor Leste is 1999, and is also based on a high-speed catamaran ferry design.
Mission in contrasts
Not only are the ships different, but the ports visited are different, too. In Malaysia, Mercy called at Port Klang, about an hour from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, and berthed at a cruise ship terminal. Brunswick called at Tawau in Sabah State on the island of Borneo, sharing a border with North Kalimantan, Indonesia.
Royal Navy Capt. Peter Olive is the deputy mission commander for PP18, and leads the team aboard Brunswick. He has an unusual crew, but ideal for the mission. “Although it arrives on a ship, it’s not a ship’s crew. Brunswick has a civilian mariner (CIVMAR) crew. And we arrived here in Tawau with a team of 105 plus 30 or 40 more who fly in and join us. We get those people from organizations across defense and from the partner nations, who can do the jobs that we need to do around medical, engineering, humanitarian relief and disaster assistance, and community engagement. It’s largely Navy, but’s it’s a diverse team. We have soldiers from the U.S. Army 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion; Marines; Navy medics; SeaBees; as well as the partner nations, which has included Australia, Japan, and the UK. When you look at that mix, it’s a genuinely joint staff. Major John Burns of the 83rd is the chief staff officer (CSO). So we’re a joint team that floats around on the ship and goes from one place to another, but we’re not the ship’s crew, so aren’t focused on the operations, navigation or maintenance of the vessel itself. I’m really delighted with the way we’re set up. I think it works really well because it allows everybody’s different skill sets to come to the fore. ”
“I’m not the first non-American deputy, although I’m the first Brit to be in that position,” said Olive. “And I think it’s the first time that they’ve had the deputy on a separate ships as opposed to being with the commodore all the time, so there is some independence of command.”
Olive said PP18 is about 180 degrees out from a normal navy deployment. “Normally, you spend four days in harbor, and weeks at sea. It’s the other way around for us because the effect is delivered on a shore.”
“The Hawaii-based DESRON 31 staff travelled from Hawaii, to San Diego so the entire team could get to know each other while sailing back to Pearl Harbor,” said Olive. “We all sailed together from San Diego on Mercy, and on to Guam, where our team was to meet up with USNS Fall River, which was slated to be the other PP18 platform.”
Fall River, however, had engineering issues and was replaced on short notice by sister ship USNS Brunswick. Brunswick was on another task supporting Commander Seventh Fleet in the Philippines but was diverted to support PP18. “Fall River was already fitted out,” said Olive. “So everything came off and within 48 to 72 hours, it was all fitted into Brunswick. It was an absolute miracle.”
“CTF 73 and MSC Far East, who controlled the whole engineering aspect of it, did a fantastic job. It was a busy, busy, but we sailed on time, and it was seamless to the mission.”
From Guam, Mercy went to Ulithi, and Brunswick pulled into Yap the same day. “It was a remarkable place to be, particularly for a Brit, because we don’t go to Micronesia much,” Olive said. “We had Royal Navy medical officer on Mercy who went ashore in Ulithi. We checked the historical records, and as far as we can tell he was the first Royal Navy officer to go to Ulithi since the Pacific Fleet pulled in there alongside the US fleet during World War II. So it’s been a long time since we’ve been back.”
“It is a fascinating part of the world to go to,” Olive said. “We had some really amazing experiences in Yap, and the mission went really well, with a huge amount of engagement with officials of the Federated States of Micronesia. And then we got to Palau, and the all of the missions there also went well. Palau has somewhat different needs. We provided more basic medical support in Yap, but in Palau they were looking for things like mental health care, and advanced cardiology. And we did a HA/DR exercise that was really quite sophisticated. I ended up getting rescued out of the water.”
Olive believes that Pacific Partnership is one of the most important missions that the U.S. Pacific Fleet does in the region. “It’s about partnership built around humanitarian disaster response, which is an important thing in this region given that there’s a likelihood of that. Anything that encourages partnership between different countries is useful. And the people in this region can see their partner in the U.S. as being a reliable and doing good things for them.”
“While it’s the US mission, we’re demonstrating the value of the current international system which involves countries working together. So that you have all these countries turning up, doing great things together, is a hugely powerful symbol of all of that. So when we have a Japanese surgeon, with a Brit paramedic, working with a Yap doctor, to save somebody’s life in Yap, that’s the international community at its best, all wrapped up into one little package,” Olive said.
When asked if PP18 has been fun, Olive invoked a Cockney colloquialism of jubilation. “Ah! Lummy, yes! It’s beenterrific for me. Right from the outset. As a senior officer I’ve spent a fair amount of time working on policy jobs, so to be back at sea having an adventure is a great experience.”
Olive’s team included people with a variety of expertise.
Lt. j.g. Kelvin Edmonds is a Civil Engineer Corps officer leading a detachment of 28 Seabees from Amphibious Construction Battalion One, based at Coronado, Calif., which was the only sail-in echelon engineering element aboard the Brunswick. “We spent two weeks in Yap doing six different projects at five schools and one hospital. There was a lot of rain in Yap and Palau, so we had to adjust the work we were doing for the weather.”
“In Palau we had two large projects at an elementary school where we built sidewalk canopies. We repaired roofs, did some concrete work, and a lot of painting,” Edmonds said. “Our Seabees could look around and see a lot more work they could do that would help the community. They like hard projects.”
Edmonds said the Seabees also had time to enjoy the islands, and meet the local people. “We liked the cultural interaction, and we did hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling.”
In Tawau, the fly-in echelon of Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Five (NMCB 5) from Port Hueneme, Calif., arrived before the ship, and would leave after it left. “They will be here about two months, so they can do more substantial projects,” Edmonds said.
NMCB 5 Seabees worked alongside counterparts from the Malaysia Armed Forces at the SK Kampung Jawa and SK Kebangsaan Taman schools, building three open-air halls for use by students for lunch or outdoor learning. The ACB 1 Seabees and their Malaysian counterparts painted outdoor walls and welded together water tank stands at the Merotia Clinic near Tawau.
A six-person brass ensemble from the Pacific Fleet Band, augmented by a drummer from the Royal Australian Navy, performed at a variety of venues. The military people joined the locals in dancing to the Cupid Shuffle, and the crowd went wild when band leader Chief Musician Chris Sams sang, Assalammualaikum Ustazah, a local favorite.
U.S. Army Cpt. Daniel Mathews of the 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion Fort Bragg, N.C., said Pacific Partnership was about providing local solutions to local problems. “We teach a basic HA/DR responders course, and bring in organizations that normally don’t work together, such as the police, military, Ministry of Health, non-governmental organization, and tribal organization—all the people who could be on that disaster scene. We’re building resiliency into their system, but were also enhancing interoperability for a better joint, unified response.”
For Navy Nurse Lieut. Cmdr. Molly Cook, normally assigned to the Naval Medical Center San Diego Branch Clinic at MCAS Miramar, where she is the clinic nurse for the 3rd Marine Air Wing, this is her third Pacific Partnership. Her subspecialty is as a community health nurse. “We focus on water, food, sanitation, and prevention of illness and disease, and looking at how we can educate and share best practices. We work very closely with the HA/DR population for this mission. This is what we live for.”
She said she visited the Philippines for PP 15 and 16, and was able to see how they made a difference. “We did a train-the trainer course at a hospital called ‘Helping babies breathe.’ The people we trained conducted four classes after we left. When we came back the next year, there was a decrease in the number of deliveries that required high-level intervention because of the prevention and early-intervention strategy we shared with them. And our biomed tech worked on their inoperable defibrillator to get it working again, and we taught a course on how to use it. When we returned that had successfully used it three times,” Cook said. “That was a win. I’m pretty excited about that.”
“USNS Brunswick proved to be an incredibly valuable platform for Pacific Partnership,” said Olive. “The versatility of the ship allowed us to transit shallow waters and visit ports like Yap and Palau, places that wouldn’t be able to accommodate Mercy.”
According to Capt. John Wilshusen, who commands Military Sealift Command’s Far East office, Brunswick is a “truck.” “We ask the mission commander what he needs–including facilities on the ship; mix of parts; perhaps extra water-making capacity; and how many people do we need to carry and feed? The bare bones communications suite on those ships is actually pretty good. But if we want to embark a staff on there, we may want to bring along additional capability. So tell us what you want, send us the gear you want us to hook up, and we’ll figure out how to hook it up.”
“Because the mission commander is aboard Mercy, and the deputy mission commander is embarked on Brunswick, we installed a C4I capability that we plugged into the ship’s network, so there are work stations for the staff to work from to generate their reports and talk to chat rooms and whatever else they need to do,” Wilshusen said. “We embarked that capability on the ship because it doesn’t come with it, but we were able to take advantage of the existing ship’s backbone.”
Wilshusen said EPF are being used for engagement missions because they’re so adaptable. “We can change the package that’s on board to match whatever mission we’re going to do. It just takes planning ahead of time in order to make sure we’ve got stuff where it needs to be in order to get it where it needs to go.”
Rear Adm. Gabrielson said the EPF is an ideal and flexible platform for Pacific Partnership and other theater security cooperation missions. “I’d love to have more of them. We could double the number here. We’d be able to do very meaningful work. It’s a vessel that goes to sea and embarks relevant capability. And as the requirements for the capability change, you change what’s on there.”
Because of its shallow draft, Gabrielson said EPF, as well as the littoral combat ship, opens up new opportunities to the U.S. Navy. “We’re taking these ships and we’re going places that the United States Navy – in our lifetimes – has not been.”
At the closing ceremony to conclude the PP18 mission at Sri Lanka, Bretz summed up the success achieved by the U.S. and host nation, which applies to all of the countries visited.
“U.S., partner, and host nation personnel have swung hammers, troweled concrete and mortar, laid cinder blocks, took blood pressure and temperatures, checked eyes, talked through interpreters, extracted teeth, filled out a lot of medical admin, issued prescription drugs, kicked soccer balls, played on instruments, taught children how to brush their teeth, coordinated bus movements, built stages, flew helicopters…I could go on and on,” said Bretz.
“It has truly been an honor to lead the dynamic men and women of Pacific Partnership 18,” said Bretz. “This mission is something myself, along with our entire team from Mercy and Brunswick will never forget. We set out to strengthen the bonds with our host and partner nations, and we achieved this with resounding success. I could not have done it without the hard work and dedication of the PP18 team and it is something I will look back on fondly for the rest of my life.”