Operation Unified Assistance: Tsunami Transitions

By Daniel, James | Military Review, January-February 2006 | Go to article overview

Operation Unified Assistance: Tsunami Transitions


Daniel, James, Military Review


On 26 December 2004, a massive tsunami struck Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Sumatra, destroying towns, villages, ports, bridges, and roadways and killing over 200,000 people. The disaster left hundreds of thousands of people without adequate food and shelter. Based on multination requests for assistance, U.S. President George W. Bush directed U.S. Army Pacific Command (PACOM) to launch Operation Unified Assistance to provide disaster relief via Combined Support Force (CSF) 536.

Using its unique ability to move humanitarian supplies rapidly via strategic and tactical lift, the CSF assembled and coordinated combined service assets to assess requirements and deliver aid quickly where it was needed. Combined support groups (CSGs) performed the roles of civil-military operations centers (CMOCs) for each of the affected countries, enhancing tactical delivery of CSF aid. Working closely with host-nation authorities, American embassies, and CSF headquarters, the CSGs ensured aid met the specific needs of each country.

Joint Publication (JP) 3-07, Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Military Operations Other Than War, states that the U.S. military conducts three types of humanitarian assistance operations: those the United Nations coordinates, those the United States operates unilaterally, and those it does in concert with multinational forces. (1) Operation Unified Assistance was conducted with multinational forces under a flexible command and control (C2) arrangement. The CSF experience shows transition planning is a complex procedure, but existing joint doctrine provides a sufficient framework to begin the process.

Working with Others

The CSF learning curve for working with non-U.S. military personnel was nearly vertical. U.S. planners function well in the familiar environment of military planning, but each high availability disaster recovery (HADR) environment is unique, and staffs must adapt to succeed. Developing an effective transition plan required the participation of representatives from the humanitarian relief community (HRC) and partner nations. Directing tasks to these people is one thing; actively engaging their participation with courteous, insightful dialog that is neither condescending nor aggressive is another. Nothing will cause a breakdown in communications with civilian or partner-nation representatives faster than flat-handed, finger-pointing gestures or condescending A-B-C questions from staff officers. The better that aid workers and foreign liaison officers (LNOs) are treated the more the plans team will learn and the better the plan will be. Plus, representatives will feel some ownership of the plan and will actively help execute it. In the HADR environment, relief organizations and partner nations definitely get a vote. They are at meetings to help, not hinder, the process. They should be treated as equal members of the relief team.

The CSF coordinated civil-military operations in a combined coordination center (CCC) formed by combining PACOM's multinational planning and augmentation team, partner-nation LNOs, and HRC planners. While partner nations were free to conduct independent operations, they quickly saw the benefit of coordinating their relief with the CCC. In accord with JP 3-07.6, Joint Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for Foreign Humanitarian Assistance, the CCC covered operational-level CMOC doctrinal requirements and the CSFs served as tactical CMOCs. (3) CCC planners assigned military assets to coordinate and execute HRC tasks at the operational level.

Transition Planning

Military-to-civilian transition planning was challenging, and determining when military assistance was sufficient and complete was particularly difficult. Joint Publication 3-57, Doctrine for Joint Civil Affairs, states that such a transition should occur when "the mission has been accomplished" or when the president and secretary of defense so direct. …

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