By Rear Adm. Michael Smith
Director, Strategy and Policy Division
Recent natural disasters are a reminder of the catastrophic volatility of weather and the profound human suffering such events can create. The subsequent outpouring of aid also is a reminder of Americans’ desire to render assistance to those afflicted.
At home and overseas, U.S. Navy forces are often at the forefront of relief operations during humanitarian assistance and disaster response efforts. While not a core function, humanitarian assistance and disaster response is an historic and ongoing activity for U.S. Navy forces – from providing relief in Halifax, Nova Scotia after the city was decimated by a munitions explosion in 1917 to the large-scale naval response during Operation Tomodachi following the unprecedented earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that struck Japan in 2011. Our persistently forward and ready posture, using the seas to lift and sustain a national or multinational response, is precisely what enables the Navy to provide relief and assistance.
Humanitarian assistance and disaster response is best understood as two complementary but differing concepts of employment: proactive humanitarian assistance, and reactive humanitarian assistance and disaster response. While naval forces are not specifically designed for humanitarian assistance and disaster response, these activities capitalize on many of the enduring attributes of our fleet — for example, mobility, adaptability, scalability and interoperability — while bringing into play our naval core functions of sea control, power projection and maritime security. Our ability to use the seas as maneuver space and project power ashore means we are able to respond rapidly with relief supplies and personnel anywhere they are needed – in particular, our littoral combat ships, joint high-speed vessels, and combat logistics force ships provide ideal platforms for providing rapid relief from the sea. Our expertise in maritime security provides the knowledge and training to operate in some of the most vulnerable littoral regions while providing a stabilizing presence.
Proactive humanitarian assistance is a form of our larger cooperation and stability mission that incorporates Navy skillsets in theater security, partner capacity-building, and mutual training. These planned events allow the U.S. Navy to share skills and build partnerships with our international counterparts, other U.S. Government organizations, and relief organizations while also providing immensely valuable training for our own personnel. An example of proactive humanitarian assistance is the eighth iteration of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s annual Pacific Partnership mission to improve maritime security, conduct humanitarian assistance and strengthen disaster response preparedness. Pacific Partnership, which began in May, is taking place in the Oceania region over a four-month period. This year’s mission is the first time in which our partner nations such as Australia and New Zealand are leading individual phases. Adm. Cecil D. Haney, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, recently said,
“Missions such as Pacific Partnership strengthen relationships that are critical to deter conflict. They build trust, enhance cooperation, and open dialogues between leaders, a multilateral approach that benefits all nations including the United States.”
In comparison, reactive humanitarian assistance and disaster response is a type of crisis response mission and is conducted in the wake of disasters and calamitous events. Reactive humanitarian assistance and disaster response can include direct relief efforts – medical care, logistics or engineering assistance – or it can include more robust assistance such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, command and control, and stabilizing support to civil authorities in the affected region. For example, following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Sailors and Marines were on scene in a matter of days providing direct and immediate assistance to decimated regions, and remained on station for months afterward. Operation Unified Assistance was able to provide this reactive humanitarian assistance and disaster response because the Navy-Marine Corps team relied on already honed skills and experience gained in proactive humanitarian assistance missions as well as other naval missions such as power projection, sealift, rapid response and sea-basing.
When disasters occur, the American people are moved by human suffering to act, and in doing so offer the capabilities and unique skills of the U.S. Navy to provide both immediate aid and prolonged assistance. The Navy is well-suited for these missions because our expeditionary naval forces are already on station and can quickly respond when crises arise. Our ships are ideal platforms for rapid response with their self-contained, multi-mission capabilities: able to operate without reliance on ports and airfields ashore, while bringing the organic medical support, strategic and tactical lift, and robust communications needed in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
Because of our unique forward and ready posture, the U.S. Navy is more often than not at the forefront of these efforts. These efforts remain a priority, but the effects of sequestration may jeopardize our ability to execute humanitarian assistance and disaster response in the coming years. Sequestration forces us to consider support to humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations against other competing priorities. Nevertheless, we will continue to lend this helping hand when called upon to do so. Our Navy and our Nation are strengthened by our participation in proactive humanitarian assistance and reactive humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions around the globe.
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