An MV-22B Osprey brings survivors of Typhoon Haiyan to Villamor Air Base.
When Typhoon Haiyan smashed through the Philippines Nov. 8, whipping the islands with 200-mile-per-hour winds and killing thousands, the U.S. military was already mobilizing disaster relief resources.
Three days later, when the Philippine government reached out for international aid, the Navy and Marine Corps were able to deliver airlift and search-and-rescue services within hours.
From bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the United States sent the USS George Washington carrier task force and elements of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, together totaling 13,000 sailors and Marines.
But before they could arrive, two squadrons of MV-22 Ospreys and their crews stationed in Okinawa were already on the scene delivering crucial aid. They were able to use a local runway that was still too damaged for fixed-wing aircraft, and deploy from Clark Air Base, some 400 miles away from the disaster zone.
The ensuing “Operation Damayan” was a chance for the Marine Corps to flex its muscle as a global emergency response force — a professed goal of the service within a Pacific-centric U.S. national security strategy.
But budget cuts, especially to shipbuilding, threaten the availability of naval forces when disasters occur, which they do with frequency throughout the vast Asia-Pacific region, current and former service leaders said.
With only a handful of ships, the Navy and Marines were able to provide search-and-rescue sorties, transportation of aid workers into and out of disaster areas, road clearance, supply distribution and civilian evacuations, according to a Congressional Research Service report published Nov. 25.
At its peak, the operation involved 13 ships and 34 aircraft — including V-22 Ospreys and H-60 helicopters — with 1,000 troops deployed directly to areas affected by the storm, the report said. The immediacy of the response and the wealth of capabilities brought to bear for humanitarian relief would not have been possible without the forward presence of the Navy and Marine Corps, the report said.
“DoD’s initial response to Typhoon Haiyan was greatly facilitated by the advanced warning of the storm as well as naval, air and Marine Corps assets either visiting or stationed in mainland Japan and the Japanese island of Okinawa,” it said.
Retired Rear Adm. Terry McKnight said the long-term relationship the United States shares with the Philippines and the proximity of available forces allowed for swift and cooperative response to the disaster.
“They didn’t have to ask. We were in motion,” he said, though the Philippines did formally request humanitarian aid from the U.S. military.
Fewer ships and a scaled back presence abroad threaten the goal of being a global crisis response force, McKnight said. The threads began to show in 2011 when the necessary forces were not available to evacuate civilians from war-torn Libya. Contracted ferries were tasked with shuttling U.S. citizens to safety as that country sank into civil war, he said.
The naval task force initially focused on assessing damage in the storm’s wake and conducting search-and-rescue operations, the report said. The George Washington was able to provide air transport when most Philippine airports were wrecked and runways were obstructed by debris.
Marines aboard two amphibious assault ships that replaced the George Washington provided airlift, communications and search-and-rescue services that no other force on Earth is capable of delivering, McKnight said.
“Whatever the mission is, the amphibs just bring the necessary tools,” he said. “Carriers are great, but the amphibs are the first platform of choice. They are flexible. … You can go from kinetic operations to humanitarian relief at the drop of a hat. It’s hard to do that stuff with a DDG, because they are pretty good at hard killing, but not at soft operations.”
The USS Ashland and USS Germantown dock landing ships each carry a complement of about 450 Marines and a fleet of landing craft air cushions and amphibious assault vehicles. Both vehicles can deliver troops and supplies to shores that have no working ports or airports.
Each ship also has a cavernous well deck that can be configured to house evacuees, provide showers, stage supplies and for other purposes, McKnight said. The ships also each have medical facilities that are “equivalent to a small-town hospital,” he said.
The amphibs delivered heavy engineering equipment such as backhoes, dump trucks, generators and portable water tanks, the CRS report said.
By Dec. 1 when the relief effort was handed over to the Philippine government, the U.S. response had delivered 4 million pounds of supplies and equipment, the report said. U.S. helicopters flew for 2,400 hours on 1,100 flights and moved 2,000 workers into Tacloban City alone. They evacuated 20,000 survivors with the help of an international coalition that included militaries and non-governmental organizations from Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom, the report said.
The U.S. military was responsible for evacuating 540 American citizens, 19,600 Philippine citizens and 300 nationals from other countries.
McKnight said the swiftness and ultimate success of the operation was evidence that U.S. military relationships in the region have improved in recent years. Similar relief operations were not as successful following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian residents, he said.
“These countries really want to know, in the end, who is going to be there when they really need help,” he said. “The truth is [the United States] is really the only force that can get there and deliver capabilities.”
Maintaining the ability to respond at a moment’s notice anywhere in the world — whether to conflict or disaster — will require the United States to “continually and robustly invest in our amphibious forces,” McKnight said.
“The proof is in the pudding. We will not be able to be everywhere,” McKnight said. “Let’s say we’re engaged in an operation somewhere in the world and something like [Typhoon Haiyan] happens. We will be stretched thin, and if it’s got to be done quick and we don’t have an amphibious group there … it is going to be a stretch to do some of the missions.”
The goal of the Marine Corps is a fleet of 36 amphibious assault ships, but the service perennially struggles to maintain that number, McKnight said.
“Every single year, the amphibs are the redheaded stepchildren,” of the Navy’s shipbuilding plans, McKnight said. “They are the ships that are first to be cut and the last to be budgeted. Subs, carriers and [destroyers] almost always are made higher priorities for funding, and the amphibs get what is left.”
Many members of the senior leadership of both the Marine Corps and Navy are career aviators or submariners, McKnight said. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert is a career submariner. With few amphibious ship commanders in top positions, the vessels suffer from a lack of advocacy during budget debates, he said.
“The overall problem for the Navy is a budget issue — what is the right mix of different ships?” McKnight said. “I think the CNO has done a good job spreading out the wealth. The Marines will always say they want more, but they are very happy with what they have.”
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos is an aviator who flew F/A-18 Hornets off
Navy carriers, among other aircraft. Still he praised the amphibious assault ship, particularly the amphibious transport dock, or LPD, to a gathering of the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus on Capitol Hill in December.
“We have an LPD hull right now that is one of the most successful hulls we have. Years and years of time and effort have gone into that LPD,” Amos was quoted as saying during the meeting. “It is as fine an amphibious warship that has ever sailed the seas. The LPD, from my perspective, just makes sense.”
Amos called amphibious warships the “Swiss Army Knife” of the U.S. fleet, and the “most utilitarian” of ships, according to reports. Too few ships are forcing the Marine Corps to lengthen troops deployments, degrading operational tempo and widening the gulf between maintenance overhauls for ships, he said.
Sequestration threatens both the Navy’s shipbuilding schedule and the readiness of Marines deployed around the globe, he said.
The Damayan Operation also turned out to be another showcase for the Marine Corps’ MV-22 Osprey.
Capt. Caleb Eames, public affairs liaison officer for III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Installations Pacific, said the Ospreys — totaling 14 aircraft — were some of the first to arrive on the scene.
They were quickly flown to Clark Air Force Base on the main island of Luzon, about 400 miles from Tacloban. Their long-range capabilities allowed them to fly to the disaster zone, perform multiple missions, then fly back at the end of the day. That is the equivalent of flying from San Francisco to San Diego, performing a half dozen to a dozen missions, then flying back, he noted.
“A typical rotary wing helicopter could never have accomplished that. Certainly not as quickly,” Eames said. Because of their range and speed, the Marines did not have to set up and support a forward operating base for the aircraft in Tacloban. If they only had the old CH-46s, setting up a temporary base would have been necessary, and many of the sorties would have been carried out to support the FOB rather than helping distressed Filipinos, he added.
The Navy H-60 Seahawks eventually were brought into the mix when the carrier task force and amphibs arrived.
Also present were 330J Puma helicopters provided to the Navy by contractor AAR Airlift. The Pumas are routinely used in the Pacific to carry out resupply missions between ships, but were pressed into duty for the relief operation, according to Bill Willis, AAR’s officer in charge.
The helicopters transported key personnel and delivered 250,000 pounds of food, water and medical supplies to remote areas in support of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command from the USNS Richard E. Byrd, a Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship. It used sling loads to deliver critical relief for the storm’s victims to narrow beach fronts and rice paddies.
“We have been called upon in the past for humanitarian relief efforts similar in nature to this. Our crew members have prior experience with disaster relief efforts and know how to deliver supplies where they are most needed by helicopter,” Willis said via email.
“The Navy gave us permission to conduct our resupply with our own clearance authority. We found areas in need, resupplied them and reported to the Navy the position of resupply. Many of these were areas that the Navy had not yet searched at that point,” he added.
Eames said the CH-53 heavy lift helicopters were left behind on Okinawa to perform other duties, and never saw action in the operation.
“The Osprey certainly wins the contest in terms of carrying the most and traveling the farthest, and also with the most speed,” Eames said. “If you had to pick one aircraft for ship-to-shore movement that really made the day, it would be the MV-22.”
The aircraft would leave from Clark loaded with supplies, and return with evacuees and the injured.
After the amphibs arrived, the Ospreys were able to “lily pad” off the ships. They could refuel, resupply and drop off victims. They also landed on British, Australian and Japanese ships.
Eventually, a C-130 provided aerial refueling so crews had the option of using that service and returning to perform operations more quickly.
While there, they performed a variety of missions. They were the primary means of collecting reconnaissance and surveillance, Eames said. While unmanned aerial vehicles have been used to gather damage assessments in disasters domestically, they were not employed there.
The increased cargo and passenger capacity over the CH-46 allowed representatives of the Philippines government to ride along and look for villagers who needed help.
As far as communications, Eames said everything went smoothly. Terrestrial based systems were wiped out by the typhoon, but radio links between the Marines and their counterparts in the Philippine military were interoperable. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit regularly holds exercises in the nation, including practicing disaster relief scenarios.
“Just a few months before, our troops were in close to that same area doing training with the same Filipino military personnel that responded to the disaster,” Eames said. “Interoperability and cooperation training has been going on for years and years.”
Satellite links were robust, he reported. Units had all the bandwidth they needed.
In addition, an air traffic navigation, integration and coordination system was deployed at the Tacloban airport to provide temporary air traffic control. The Raytheon built X-band radar is designed to be assembled quickly and provide air traffic control when local systems are down.
“We were able to set that up in a matter of hours and help organize the flow of aircraft into a very small, remote area,” Eames said. Photo Credit: Defense Dept.