by DAVID AXE
In November 2001 a small team of Marines traveled 400 miles over mountainous terrain to open up the main U.S-led war effort in Afghanistan, joining Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries already on the ground. For several months, U.S. forces in the country numbered only a few thousand. By the end of 2002, there were still just 10,000 coalition troops on the ground. They spread out, partnered with friendly Afghan forces and relied on communications and deft logistics to keep them all alive and connected.
Soon the Marines had a name for these spread-out tactics: “distributed operations.” The idea became a cornerstone of Marine Corps planning. Marine Commandant General Michael Hagee described distributed ops in 2005:
The essence … lies in the capacity for coordinated action by dispersed units, throughout the breadth and depth of the battlespace, ordered and connected within an operational design focused on a common aim. … Small, highly capable units spread across a large area of operations will provide the spatial advantage commonly sought in maneuver warfare, in that they will be able to sense an expanded battlespace.
Now, as U.S.-led relief efforts to earthquake-ravaged Haiti encounter severe logistical bottlenecks, some American leaders are proposing to adapt the distributed ops notion for humanitarian campaigns. Spreading out aid work could avoid delays incurred by ruined infrastructure.
Haiti has just two major ports of entry: the seaport in Port-au-Prince and the city’s international airport. Both were heavily damaged by the 7.0 earthquake that struck the country on January 12. In the hours following the quake, U.S. Air Force commandos from Hurlburt Field in Florida assaulted into Port-au-Prince in order to re-open the airport. They brought along radios and airport lighting — the basic tools necessary to guide aircraft in to a landing.
That represented a new capability for the Air Force. “We can go in and basically set up an airfield ops so we can resume operations on that specific field that may have been crippled,” explained Colonel Sid Banks from the Air Force Office of Logistics.
While impressive, focusing solely on Port-au-Prince’s airport in fact represented a risky solution to Haiti’s logistical needs. There was no real back-up. “If something happens to that airfield, we’re in trouble,” said Colonel John Romero from the Air Force’s 612th Air Operations Center, which handled some of the air-traffic management as hundreds of planes from all over the world lined up to land at Port-Au-Prince.
“At one point today had 44 aircraft on the ground in various stages of off-loading equipment and onloading,” Lieutenant Colonel Brent Nelson, from the 1st Special Operations Wings, said on January 13. Before the earthquake, the airport handled just a few flights per day, and had a commensurate amount of ramp space and support equipment. Nelson’s airmen worked around the clock to keep aircraft moving and supplies off-loading, but they did so on the razor’s edge of failure.
The Air Force needed more points of entry for supplies. A week after the quake, the air service began dabbling in its own version of the Marines’ distributed ops. “We’re going to put things directly out of the air onto the ground and open up another distribution point north of the airfield,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Leon Strickland.
On January 18, a C-17 airlifter flying from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina dropped 3,700 gallons of water and 14,000 emergency meals over a secure drop zone that U.S. troops established in Port-au-Prince. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and others had worried that airdrops involving tons of supplies might endanger civilians below or even spark riots. “Whatever you do, don’t do air drops — you are likely to kill more people than you help,” retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson warned military humanitarians.
But the first drop went off without a hitch. One official mulled introducing the satellite-guided Joint Precision Airdrop System in order to help steer falling pallets away from crowds.
Airdrops helped spread out Air Force operations, but finding alternative airstrips would have been even more helpful. On January 19, the Canadian military began flying C-130s into a small airstrip in Jacmel, on Haiti’s southern coast. “The ramp is pretty small,” mused Captain Mitchell Nurse, a helicopter pilot. “It gets pretty full with about four or five small aircraft. There is no air-traffic control. It’s quite the wild one.” The U.S. Air Force said it hadn’t decided whether to risk sending its own C-130s into the strip.
The search for airfields continued. On January 21, Air Force General Douglas Fraser, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, announced the opening of three more airfields for American military planes. But Haiti actually has six airfields with civil airport codes, and many smaller strips. The U.S. Air Force was expanding its operations, but perhaps not aggressively enough.
Part of the problem is the nature of the Air Force’s airlifters. For more than a decade, the air branch has emphasized large transports — requiring long, smooth airfields — over smaller planes that can land on dirt strips. The Air Force’s smallest regular airlifter, the C-130, requires a 3,000-foot runway. In the 1990s, the Air Force flew smaller C-27s that could land in half the distance. The air service retired the C-27s, which had been assigned to Latin America, in 1999. This year the Pentagon will begin fielding a new version of the C-27, but probably not in time to help in Haiti.
The Navy grapples with the same problem. A week after the Haiti quake, the Navy had three large vessels — an aircraft carrier, an amphibious assault ship and a hospital ship — all sitting in Port-au-Prince harbor, mostly idle. The city’s piers were too shaky for docking, but even undamaged, it’s not clear the facilities could have accepted the warships, all of which exceeded 40,000 tons displacement. “I don’t believe there is pier in Haiti even before the earthquake that was capable of handling our ship,” admitted Commander Mark Marino, from the hospital ship Comfort.
The assault ship Bataan partially solved the pier problem by sending its Marines ashore in a D-Day-style amphibious operation that turned a stretch of Haitian beach into an impromptu American port. An even better solution would equip the Navy with ships that don’t require huge ports.
Unfortunately, the Navy long ago abandoned most of its small vessels in favor of a smaller number of large ships. In 2008, the U.S. Navy possessed more than 200 large warships together totaling some 3.1 million tons displacement. The next 20 largest navies, with more than 700 warships combined, together weighed in at just 3.6 million tons displacement. In other words, the U.S. Navy’s ships were three times as big as anyone else’s.
Pursuing its own distributed ops means buying more, smaller ships and spreading them out. The key to that plan is the 3,000-ton Littoral Combat Ship, a hybrid fighter-transport. Today the Navy owns just two of them, from a planned total of 55. Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, said these smaller ships would have been useful getting closer to the Haitian shoreline. Roughead said he would have deployed the LCS to Haiti like a “swarm of bees.”
One Navy study recommended an even more distributed approach in the future. “The New Navy Fighting Machine” study, by retired Captain Wayne Hughes, recommended expanding the fleet from today’s 280 combat ships to nearly 700, by buying large numbers of smaller vessels that could operate in pairs over a huge swath of ocean.
But that proposal has fallen on deaf ears. The Navy League estimated the U.S. fleet would decline to 240 (increasingly enormous) vessels “within a few short years” — this despite Haiti’s ongoing lesson in distributed humanitarian ops.