Amazing, a positive piece of journalism. Wonder what page it was hidden on in the print edition?
Tsunami Tests U.S. Forces' Logistics, but Gives Pentagon a Chance to Show a Human Face
By THOM SHANKER and JAMES BROOKE
WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 - The huge American relief operation in the Indian Ocean carries risks for the Pentagon but also rewards, employing combat resources at a time the armed forces are stretched thin, but putting forth an image of an American military that is as caring and efficient in saving lives as it is violent and efficient in slaying adversaries.
Senior Pentagon and military officials say the Defense Department carefully balanced its strategic needs with the imperative to open up logistical bottlenecks and begin ferrying water, food, medical supplies and shelter in one of the most challenging relief operations of the last 50 years.
The latest estimates indicate that the Pentagon's portion of the relief effort is costing about $5.6 million per day, and that the military already has spent $40 million on the mission, Defense Department officials said Friday. Total American combat assets - including ships and aircraft - now ordered into the region for tsunami relief are valued at $20 billion.
In the hours after the tsunami leveled coastal villages across the Indian Ocean, killing more than 150,000 and leaving millions displaced, the Bush administration began crunching numbers to calculate relief donations. But a very different kind of risk analysis was under way deep inside the Pentagon and at the military's Pacific Command in Hawaii, these officials said.
Senior military planners calculated in just a few hours how much combat power would have to be preserved for commanders in the Pacific to maintain a credible deterrent against North Korea, and even China, while sending relief assistance.
Senior officers said the most important discussion was with Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, the commander of American forces in South Korea.
"In this particular case, we talked about Korea in some depth," said Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander of all American forces in the Pacific. "We did a solid risk assessment, and I am comfortable with our posture."
Although large military commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the American forces worldwide, Pentagon and Pacific command planners realized there was an unintended benefit, especially in the decision to move heavy bombers from home bases in the United States to Asia, within easy striking distance of North Korea. This step was taken to maintain a strong deterrent in the Pacific as American military forces flowed toward Iraq.
These changes to the traditional force posture in the region have allowed the commitment of a large military contingent to the aid mission. As of Friday, approximately 13,000 American military personnel, nearly 20 warships and about 90 aircraft were assigned to the relief effort, said Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman, commander of American military efforts for the relief mission.
While the military has focused on fighting wars, the relief mission showed how swiftly it can shift missions and provide, on a large scale, such mundane but lifesaving capabilities as global transportation, cargo handling, water purification and emergency medical care.
The aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, for example, carries as much municipal infrastructure in the Indian Ocean as many American cities.
Officers and enlisted personnel involved in the mission say they are grateful for the change of pace and proud of the relief mission, which presents the world with an image of an American military saving lives of tsunami victims in countries where the United States has strong military ties, and in some where it has few.
Brig. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, commander of the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, the largest air base in the Pacific, said the military's relief effort symbolized the full range of the American armed services' engagement.
"It shows we are here for more than just the defense of Japan, an ally," he said. "We are here for other missions, the commitment to the defense of Korea, humanitarian missions, disaster relief."
In describing the balance struck by his Air Force assets, General Jouas said the American air wing at Kadena sent cargo transports, refueling tankers and helicopters to the Indian Ocean to take part in tsunami relief but kept ready in the Pacific region its airborne early warning jets and four dozen F-15 fighters.
Speaking at the military's relief command post set up at Utapao, Thailand, he expressed a desire that the military's efforts at tsunami relief would carry a powerful message around the world.
"I would hope that people would see the huge effort that we have put forth to mobilize almost 14,000 service men and women, the number of aircraft we have put into this," he said. "The generosity of the American government and people would countermand the perceptions they may have had."
One senior Pentagon official cautioned, however, "When you commit forces to any contingency, it takes away from your ability to commit elsewhere, especially to the fight." He added that war planners were paying special attention to the strain on the military's transport ability.
The commitment of the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a second amphibious strike group led by the helicopter carrier Bonhomme Richard amounts to a significant combat ability that is, temporarily at least, unavailable to combat commanders.
"Does the effort degrade our ability to operate combat aircraft off the Lincoln? Yes," said one military planner at the Pentagon. "But could it be recaptured before the ship made it to potential crisis location? Also yes."
The American armed forces have routinely been called in for relief, rescue and pinpoint stabilization missions in places like Haiti or Liberia, or deployed over years to avert social collapse and end bloodshed in places like Bosnia or Kosovo. The current relief mission is certain to be shorter than the Balkans deployments, and is likely to do more for the military's image, both among hard-hit citizens along the Indian Ocean rim and around the globe, than other recent missions in Africa or the Caribbean.
A military axiom holds that even the best plans do not survive first contact with an enemy, and much of the Defense Department's expertise is in the ability to plan quickly, rather than in rigidly carrying out the plans themselves.
Thus, officers at the military's Pacific Command said they were able to mount the assistance effort rapidly because they already had conducted a large number of exercises in the region that had incorporated elements of disaster relief.
"Our large multinational exercise that we conduct every year in Thailand is specifically pointed toward humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and peacekeeping, and of course it brings a large number of the nations of the region together to work in this same manner," Admiral Fargo said.
"So you can't point yourself toward a specific catastrophe like this," he added, "but you can put in place the basic training, the habitual relationships and, as I pointed out, the standard operating procedures that apply to a wide range of contingencies and crises."