Foreign Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster-Relief Operations: Lessons Learned and Best Practices

By O'Connor, Cathal | Naval War College Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Foreign Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster-Relief Operations: Lessons Learned and Best Practices


O'Connor, Cathal, Naval War College Review


Foreign humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief (FHA/DR) operations are some of themost complicated operations conducted by themilitary. Thesemissions constitute a core Navy mission; their planning and execution differ from those of a kineticmilitary campaign, but addressing the key principles early will enable the successful execution. The following lessons learned are based on my experiences over the past two years conducting five FHA/DR operations in the western Pacific.1 Other situations may be different, but these suggestions may make the next operation more productive and rewarding.

It is helpful to provide the crew and embarked staffs with an overview of current U.S. government FHA/DR guidance. The overarching principle is to remember one's place in an operation. The ambassador sets policy and directs the U.S. government team, while the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) coordinate and manage the U.S. response. The Department of Defense (DoD) plays a supporting role.

In other words, the DoD is part of a comprehensive U.S. approach led by the Department of State (DOS). The DOS's lead for FHA/DR is USAID,which delegates FHA/DR to USAID/OFDA. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance may send an individual or a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to coordinate the U.S. government response.

After DoD directs a geographic component commander (GCC) to provide support, either a component or a joint task force (JTF) will be tasked.Based on Commander, Task Force 76's (CTF 76's) experience, a military Humanitarian Assistance Survey Team (HAST)must arrive quickly in order to link up with the American embassy staff and the DART, as depicted in the figure.2

Most of these relationships involve coordination and collaboration, so the first lesson to learn is the importance of exchanging liaison officers (LNOs) early to establish a trusting relationship, ensure clear communication, and enhance coordination.

Just as important as inviting the host nation and USAID/DOS personnel to provide liaison officers on the command ship is sending sailors to the disaster site. They will speak on the commander's behalf as to what capabilities the ships will bring when they get there, so choose wisely when forming aHAST. The team must embody the personality and skill to coordinate across the different departments and organizations, as well as interact with nongovernment organizations (NGOs).

The size of theHAST will depend on the size and scale of the damage.Once theHAST has assessed the situation and, in coordination with USAID, has identified where DoD can best support the relief efforts, a forward command element (FCE)may be needed to take over command, control, and liaison duties, to free up the HAST for work in the field along with USAID.

This essay focuses on natural disasters, where the U.S. Agency for International Development plays a major role in the military's operational planning and activities.3 As NGOs and international governmental organizations (IGOs) arrive in the disaster zone, they are organized via the United Nations "cluster" system, which designates an NGO as the lead of each functional group. HAST members should attend cluster meetings with the USAID representatives and advise them about military support capabilities.

The second lesson-and the hardest to learn, as observed during every FHA/DR-is to do only what DoD can and then turn over to the host nation and NGOs as soon as possible. During FHA/DR operations, the host nation, NGOs, and IGOs generate thousands of requests for assistance. It is not the Department of Defense's mission to fill them all. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, along with the U.S. government country team, validates all requests for assistance and prioritizes and lists them in an electronic spreadsheet called the Mission TaskingMatrix (MITAM).HAST/FCE then reviews them for supportability and once more prioritizes them and tasks each entry to the appropriate force. …

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