On 8 November 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Republic of the Philippines causing widespread destruction and displacing millions of citizens. When the storm abated and the damage was assessed, the Armed Forces of the Philippines requested Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) support from the United States. In response, the U.S. Secretary of Defense directed Commander, United States Pacific Command (PACOM) to conduct humanitarian assistance operations.
PACOM issued an execute order on 11 November 2013 to provide immediate relief assistance in support of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines. Commander, Marine Forces Pacific (MARFORPAC) was tasked to assume responsibility as the supported operational commander and ordered 3d Marine Expeditionary Brigade (3d MEB) to deploy to the Republic of the Philippines and provide assistance. 3d MEB mobilized immediately and arrived in the Philippines on 11 November 2013.
Commander, Carrier Strike Group FIVE (CSG 5) was in port Hong Kong when Super Typhoon Haiyan struck. Their location placed them within a two-day transit from the disaster site, positioning them to provide assistance sooner than , COMEXSTRKGRU SEVEN (ESG 7), whose ships were located in Sasebo, Japan at the time. CSG 5 sailed immediately and began providing assistance upon arrival on 14 November 2013.
On 16 November 2013, PACOM formed Joint Task Force 505, led by Commanding General, III Marine Expeditionary Force. 3d MEB was assigned as Joint Forces Landing Component Commander (JFLCC), and CSG 5 was assigned Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) responsibilities.
ESG 7 was initially asked to provide only amphibious support to the operation, but was later tasked to relieve CSG 5 as JFMCC. As ESG 7 Assistant Chief of Staff for Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I) or N6, my initial role was to ensure our amphibious forces sailed with the C4I support required to complete their mission. When ESG 7 relieved CSG 5 as JFMCC, I assumed the JFMCC N6 role, and this article highlights our observations from this dynamic and fast moving humanitarian response effort.
From JFMCC operations we developed several lessons learned beneficial to future Navy units responding to humanitarian assistance contingencies. The following steps were developed through collaboration with military and civilian communicators experienced in providing services for HADR. The steps are presented to give an initial framework to follow if tasked with conducting a humanitarian assistance operation. Along with military lift, water provision and medical care, communications are one of the key impacts our Navy provides in any humanitarian assistance operation.
STEP 0: Anticipation
Start planning for HADR operations before the disaster occurs. Monitor weather forecasts and current events in your area of operations and think about what assistance your command might be asked to provide if an HADR event materializes. Discuss potential scenarios with your operational planners, logistics personnel and C4I team and start to develop flexible plans to meet dynamic requirements.
Scrutinize your HADR checklist and templates to identify actions that require advance planning. Identify germane standing OPTASKs and OPORDs to refresh your understanding of current HADR guidance. Review internal and external lessons learned documents compiled from previous HADR events. Coordinate potential support plans with senior and subordinate commands to prepare them for requested and directed assistance. Know what additional mobile ground based communications assets are available from the joint community to assist naval units ashore and how to request those.
At ESG 7, we tracked Typhoon Haiyan from its beginnings as a tropical depression to landfall. We assessed our capacity to lend assistance and focused on our limitations. Where we fell short of our anticipated needs, we looked for alternatives. We received and reviewed comprehensive lessons learned documents from numerous military and civilian sources encompassing multiple HADR efforts.
STEP 1: Planning
When tasked to provide HADR relief, begin with a clear understanding of your role in the HADR effort, and remember that your role could change during the course of the operation and so would the communications and command and control (C2) architecture you would need to provide in response. Prepare plans that take into account branches and sequels.
Determine whether your command will be supported or supporting during relief efforts and assess your scope of responsibility. In an HADR environment, you will collaborate with organizations outside your chain of command and the Department of Defense. You may need to establish communications with military, government, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) from multiple nations. Identify your points of contact and start communicating early.
If you are tasked as an enabler and not required to provide direct support, immediately begin to anticipate your supporting units’ needs. Provide direct guidance and facilitate C4I enhancements, such as expedited endorsements or approvals for satellite access requests, and increased bandwidth allocation for command and control units.
If you are tasked to provide direct support, consider all potential service options when establishing communications ashore. Indigenous communications will likely be unavailable in remote and severely impacted areas, but cellular and/or ISP service might be accessible in less-affected areas, the most likely locations for C2 sites.
Satellite phones are an excellent communications option where cellular and ISP coverage is absent and mobile communications suites are not set up or are not feasible. Ultimately, establishing and maintaining consistent, reliable communications will be paramount to effective C2. During Operation Damayan, cellular and ISP services were leveraged, but stand-alone mobile communications suites were critical to communicating effectively and would almost certainly be needed, in some capacity, during any HADR effort.
When seeking mobile communications options, anticipate competition for limited resources and engage with service providers early to ensure your needs are met. Also, though responses to mobile communications requests will likely be hastened, the request and approval process will still take time to complete, inevitably impacting deployment timelines.
When considering mobile communications options, assess your needs before making a decision. Determine the number of HADR participants, where the participants will deploy, and what communications are already established. If sufficient communications assets are already available to accommodate your footprint, it may be possible to collocate and share assets. However, if established communications assets are not sufficient to support your team, you will need to bring your own.
Multiple mobile communications options exist, ranging from a full command suite that will support 60-plus users to man-portable kits that will support fewer than 10. To secure assets, request support via message through your chain of command. Ensure you account for all communications paths that may be required. Depending on your location, you may be required to communicate from ship to shore via satellite and line-of-site communications.
ESG 7 identified potential mobile communications providers early, but did not immediately secure assets because the command was not initially tasked to provide C2 assistance. Unfortunately, when the staff was eventually tasked to provide direct support, finding a mobile communications suite in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility, that was not already deployed or reserved, was challenging. Ultimately, Explosives Ordnance Mobile Unit FIVE (EODMU 5) provided a solution through the deployment of their Rapid Response Kit (RRK) and personnel support.
STEP 2: Movement
Once the mobile communications system is selected and secured, anticipate the logistical issues of transporting and operating the system in the predicted environment. Think about potential problems, such as clearing customs and frequency restrictions, and form a plan to solve them prior to departure. Consider how the system will be transported to the relief area, where the system will be set up on arrival, who is needed for system support, and where the support personnel will lodge. Identify sustainment sources for consumable items and arrange resupply support early. If possible, ascertain when the system was last tested or upgraded and check compatibility with joint or coalition systems. If potential interoperability issues exist, attempt to identify and implement solutions before entering the HADR area.
If assigned duties require C2 afloat, the communications requirements will be similar to those mandated during amphibious exercises. The ship’s communications paths may be required to facilitate reliable ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications between the C2 commander and U.S. military, U.S. government, coalition military, coalition government, government organizations and nongovernment organizations. The ship’s crew should be prepared to find creative solutions to facilitate open communications and establish a common operating picture that can be shared by all.
If your command plans to embark an unfamiliar platform to provide C2, you must quickly learn that platform’s unique capabilities and limitations. Identify any system degradations and determine their impact on the communications requirements.
ESG 7 initially collocated with 3d MEB in Manila, outside the affected area, and provided supplemental communications via EODMU 5’s RRK before embarking USS COWPENS (CG 63), operating in Leyte Gulf, to assume JFMCC and provide C2 afloat.
STEP 3: Employment
Manage communications expectations. When deploying for an exercise, communicators usually arrive ahead of the main body to establish communications. In an HADR operation, there will be urgency to get to the affected area where the communications picture will be unknown and, likely, unreliable. The Operation Damayan response was too rapid to send personnel ahead to set up communications. As expected, maintaining steady connectivity was a challenge until a stable network was established.
Anticipate heavy reliance on smart phones, cell phones and satellite communications early in the operation. Consider requesting unlimited inbox quotas and removing cellular roaming charge ceilings. If you are providing assistance from the United States, procure cell phones with Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) chips installed and configure the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) connection prior to deployment.
Whether your organization deploys ashore or embarks a ship, you will be required to establish communications between multiple disparate organizations. The communications environment will be dynamic and you may need to find a way to communicate with joint or coalition units using keying material and crypto devices not in your inventory. There may also be a requirement to quickly provide CENTRIXS Fly Away Kits, a process that requires approvals, logistics and potentially personnel support. Identify and establish communications paths early; form communications contingency plans and be prepared to quickly adapt to shifting requirements.
Once your communications suite is operational, quickly establish and promulgate helpdesk procedures. If possible, without significantly risking network security, relax requirements for admin rights to speed account activation. If your unit is acting as Joint Task Force Commander, assume Joint Communications Component Commander (JCCC) and establish communications with the Multinational Coordination Center. Immediately afterward, promulgate directions to subordinate units and coordinate communications efforts. If your unit is directed to assume JFMCC responsibilities, immediately connect to the JCCC and begin to provide information and receive direction.
The most efficient vector for information flow is through a single share portal that is accessible by all parties. Share information freely and keep everything unclassified to foster and facilitate open communications between all relief organizations. The portal should be well-advertised, easy to access and simple to use. Avoid complex access requirements and account activation delays.
During Operation Damayan, all joint information was maintained on the All Partners Access Network (APAN). The APAN is an unclassified, nongovernment network that facilitates information sharing between nonaffiliated organizations. CSG 5 created and managed an APAN JFMCC portal, and later passed maintenance responsibilities to ESG 7 when JFMCC N6 responsibilities were relinquished. ESG 7 assigned a dedicated knowledge manager who monitored and sustained the portal and provided assistance throughout the relief effort.
STEP 4: Redeployment
The order to redeploy to home station may be unexpected. As relief efforts start to wind down, begin planning your return so you are prepared to move when ordered. When the redeployment order is given, there will be significant competition for transportation assets. Identify and arrange air and ground transportation as soon as possible. Communications gear, support personnel and staff may all have different final destinations, complicating travel plans. Arranging ground transportation to the air field and arranging air transportation out of the area will likely be accomplished through two separate processes.
Step through the procedures for repacking the communications gear in advance so there is no confusion when you are ordered to move. Often, mobile communications equipment is packed in a controlled environment and stored, ready for deployment. Re-packing the equipment hastily, in a field environment, to meet movement timelines can result in damaged or forgotten items.
When you return, take time to capture and disseminate lessons learned. Lessons learned during previous HADR events were successfully applied to this relief effort, ensuring quick action and smooth military-to-civilian transition. ESG 7 documented successes and failures throughout the duration of Operation Damayan. When the operation was complete, the command assigned someone to dedicate their complete attention to compiling, organizing and disseminating the lessons we learned.
The terrific amount of quality advice and support offered and delivered during Operation Damayan was impressive. If you need guidance or assistance during an HADR event, seek advice from one of the many experienced HADR communicators. You will likely receive offers to help before you know you need it.
Cmdr. Jason A. Parish is the N6/Assistant Chief of Staff for C4I, COMEXSTRKGRU SEVEN.