Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Samoa: Response could be quicker by design

It is now eight days since the Pacific Tsunami struck Samoa and Tonga. It is interesting to compare the latest reports from the International Committee for the Red Cross, Red Crescent and the New Zealand Defence Force. Both seem to be working damn hard with what they've got and good on them for their efforts.

But the fact is in a tropical environment time is of the essence. Bodies decompose quicker, disease spreads quicker. What this disaster is starting to show is an essential time-line for response to disaster. This seems to look like this:

Time Response

0 Alarm
The problem here is official channels for notification of an event.
Media often outpace official channels, particularly in nations (including New Zealand) without 24/7 disaster management centres.

12hrs Assessment
Aerial assessment at least should be available soon after the event
Local aircraft are the first obvious choice for this.
RNZAAF maritime surveillance aircraft should be capable of fulfilling this role
Key intelligence must include information on serviceability of airports
Secondary intelligence should be some view on serviceability of ports. This can be done by Laser Airborne Depth Sounder . This is particularly important after Tsunamis.

24hrs Rescue, Fire-Fighting and Pollution Suppression.
The first priority is to rescue the living.
Relocation of search aircraft - particularly helicopters is a key priority. This is best
done by air (this was well done by RAAF and RNZAF). Helicopters are essential for medical evacuation and in come cases heavy lift.
Specialist search and rescue teams with dogs are also an early priority (another success).
This requires heavy lift aircraft and longer range rapid deployment aircraft.
While Tsunamis are an antithesis of fires earthquakes can generate severe fires.
Heavy fire-fighting air support could be essential particularly where fuel is burning.
Pollution from ruptured tanks should be contained quickly to prevent disruption of
later operations are important.

48hrs Morgue Services and Water Supplies
Finding, retrieving and identifying bodies and restoring water.
Locals will naturally be more sensitive to bodies and want better treatment of them.
This will require rapidly deployed cool storage and staff used to morgue operations.
Local vehicles may need to be bought or rented for body removal.
Restoring clean water supplies must begin quickly either by trucking or repairing pipelines. Water cannot be delayed much longer than this. (Navy divers assisted here)

72hrs Temporary Shelter, Medical Services and Wreckage Clearance
This requires rapidly deployed medical centres, engineering equipment and camps
Some homeless people will be unable to find relatives to stay with, people with any non
emergency injuries will begin to need treatment. (once again air mobility and local services were essential. The role of civilian medical volunteers should be formalised).

When thinking about a hypothetical force for my defence review I realised that the best way to provide all of these services was with a ship. The problem was ships are slow, take ages to load and it could be two weeks before a ship which was even in New Zealand to begin with would be available on station where it was needed.

I came to the conclusion that the only solution to this was to have more than one ship, a vessel type I called the Pacific Aid Ship. It would be fitted with self-loading cargo capacity, additional accomodation, water-generation capability, electricity generation facility, a good medical facility, light helicopters and holds with heavy amphibious engineering vehicles (based on the Viking design). It would patrol the Northern Pacific providing shipping services and medical facilities to islands too small or poor to economically support their own. In addition it would gather intelligence on the arcane world of Pacific politics. The two ships would operate turn about on 30-day missions. Such a ship would easily have been on station within two or three days of the disaster.

The second craft I concluded that was necessary was an operations aircraft which could relocate to the mission area and provide low level reconnaisance and medical evacuation quickly. This was more for responding to disasters such as bombings where small numbers of New Zealanders need rapid evacuation in circumstances where commercial aircraft are not available. This aircraft would carry the perennial medical team we always dispatch as a first response to any disaster.

Another important craft was the large landing craft. This is a very simple vessel designed to deliver heavy machinery to any beach. It has no capacity to carry crew but is very quick to load ( drive the vehicles on and off you go). Crew and other material would arrive by very large jet cargo craft. In my view New Zealand still needs to replace the C-130s which are slow and have limited capacity. I still believe the IL-76 is a good platform but the Russians need to get their act together.

Finally if needed the hypothetical service came with a very heavy lift helicopter with a long enough range to fly to a disaster zone. Sometimes when you need to lift ten tonnes quickly there is no better or indeed alternative option.

None of this is to cast any aspersions on those currently working hard to assist Samoa. All I am saying is that with more flexible thinking and better needs analysis the Defence Force could be provided with better equipment to carry out the difficult task Government has set it. However the first and most important recognition has to be that humanitarian missions have become the litmus test of military preparedness and efficiency - more so than any other mission they are likely to encounter.


HMNZS Canterbury sailed yesterday (Sunday October 11) 12 days after the event. In my view this is as quick as could be expected because of the type of ship she is. And, of course, that is my point.