Turns Out the Pentagon Can Do More Than Kill People and Break Things

The military is really good at helping, too

Turns Out the Pentagon Can Do More Than  Kill People and Break Things Turns Out the Pentagon Can Do More Than  Kill People and Break Things

Uncategorized November 13, 2013 0

A U.S. Marine Corps V-22 Osprey unloads typhoon victims at a refugee center. Department of Defense photo Turns Out the Pentagon Can Do More... Turns Out the Pentagon Can Do More Than  Kill People and Break Things
A U.S. Marine Corps V-22 Osprey unloads typhoon victims at a refugee center. Department of Defense photo

Turns Out the Pentagon Can Do More Than Kill People and Break Things

The military is really good at helping, too

The call goes out and the U.S. Marine Corps springs into action. Within hours, three Marine C-130 transports are flying from Okinawa, Japan, to a distant crisis zone.

Accompanying them are four V-22 tiltrotors. The hybrid rotorcraft, which take off vertically but cruise like an airplane, quickly cross nearly a thousand miles of open ocean—something no conventional helicopter can do. On the ground, the 80 Marines and accompanying sailors unload pallets of supplies and get ready to receive reinforcements.

Meanwhile at the port of Hong Kong, Veterans Day liberty for the crew of the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group is abruptly canceled as the force receives emergency orders. The armada steams south, rendezvousing with other Navy ships in the area.

This all really happened in the past couple days. But the Navy and Marines aren't going to war. They’re responding to one of the largest storms on record after it smashed into the central Philippines.

The Pentagon’s effort to help in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan is further proof that the military can do a lot more than just kill people and break things. Today disaster relief is a core mission. One that U.S. forces are very, very good at.

Gear and supplies loaded onto a KC-130 tanker transport at MCAS Futenma, Okinawa. Marine Corps photo

Typhoon Haiyan tore through the island nation of the Philippines this weekend, killing at least 2,000 people and ravaging an already poverty-stricken region.

Local authorities were quickly overwhelmed. The cash-strapped armed forces of The Philippines did what they could, which was not much. So a desperate Manila did what many governments do in a crisis: it placed a call to the Americans. And by Tuesday, U.S. forces from Okinawa were on their way.

The U.S. military has provided disaster relief for more than a hundred years. Local troops under the command of Gen. Frederick Funston helped following the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire in 1906.

But the mission traditionally was split: the National Guard responded to disasters in the U.S., freeing the active-duty military to train for war. The active component generally tried to avoid humanitarian missions, considering them an unnecessary distraction.

That has changed. Now the Pentagon embraces humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as something that generates a lot of useful goodwill all around, for very little downside.

The military is uniquely trained to respond to emergencies abroad. America fights her wars usually thousands of miles from her own shores. This has required the development of sophisticated logistics.

The same logistical prowess applies directly to disaster relief. Flying a thousand miles to a ruined country, opening the airports and clearing the ports of debris, fixing the bridges and then getting a supply system in place to provide water and medical aid to thousands of people sounds just like an invasion—minus the shooting part.

A humanitarian scenario and a war are so similar that there is actually a lot of training value in natural disasters and other humanitarian emergencies, regardless of any other merit the military might see in helping out.

American military responding to foreign disasters is also good PR. American troops, scattered around the world, often face opposition from locals who resent the presence of foreign troops. Sending Okinawa-based ships and planes to The Philippines shows America’s Asian allies that maybe hosting American troops isn’t all bad.

Public relations can have strategic ramifications. America’s considerable contribution to the Philippine relief effort makes China, the other major Pacific power, look like the bad guy —considering the pittance of aid China has pledged. Other Pacific countries, pressured by China to give up contested territory, are invited to watch and draw their own conclusions.

A Navy and Marine Corps humanitarian display during Fleet Week 2012. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user NicoleAbalde

Humanitarian relief is also a way for the U.S. military to connect with the American people. Navy and Marine Corps equipment regularly appears at San Francisco’s annual Fleet Week—a comforting reminder that the military will be there to help when the next earthquake strikes.

Disaster relief missions are an opportunity to show off new hardware in a very public way. In late 2012, the Marines replaced Vietnam War-era CH-46 helicopters at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa with the new V-22. The tiltrotors were able to fly nonstop from Okinawa to The Philippines without refueling—something the CH-46s couldn’t do. The deployment is a big win for Osprey advocates who have been defending the controversial $70-million-per-copy aircraft against accusations that it is unsafe and too expensive.

Humanitarian missions are not all cakewalks. And when relief missions get mixed up in combat operations, things can get real tricky. The American intervention in Somalia in 1992 began as an effort to stabilize the country and get aid flowing to a starving population. It eventually became a shooting war.

Likewise, the protection of Kurdish enclaves in northern Iraq in 1991 had the very real possibility of sparking more fighting with Saddam Hussein’s forces.

The expansion of the military into humanitarian missions is a win for everyone. For the helicopter pilots, logisticians, ship captains and combat engineers there’s an added bonus: when they enter disaster zones, they’re practicing for war. But it also means that survivors are rescued, the sick rendered medical care and refugees fed and sheltered.

Americans can be proud their country is lending a hand, making a good impression—and yes, sticking it to the Chinese.

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