Pentagon Wrestles With Haiti Relief

Some wonder how long the military can continue one of the largest humanitarian efforts in its history

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In one of the largest humanitarian efforts in its history, the U.S. military has sent nearly 20,000 personnel, 23 ships, and an estimated 100 flights a day in and out of Haiti since it was hit by a horrific earthquake this month. But as the casualty figures mount and the scale of the destruction becomes more clear, Pentagon officials are now wrestling with what comes next. "Now that this immediate relief has been provided, what do we want to do from here?" Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell wondered aloud at a recent briefing. "What can we do from here?"

And with wars on two fronts, military analysts are posing another question: How long can the Pentagon realistically keep it up? "We as a military are committed to seeing this through," said Morrell. "But what precisely that means and how many forces are there, doing what kinds of things for how long and at what kind of expense, are precisely the discussions that are being had within the building."

These revolve around the range of the military mission, which to date has been enormous. Some 60,000 feet above the ground, the Air Force is now using unmanned aerial vehicles--in high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan for their ability to target terrorists—to scope out damage, get relief to the right places, and answer the urgent questions of aid organizations on the ground. To do this, intelligence analysis teams of 36 to 50 people around the world working in 12-hour shifts have been mobilized to sort through streams of Global Hawk UAV images coming in from Haiti. "In our normal job, we do combat battle damage assessment," says Col. Dan Johnson, 480th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Wing commander. "But instead of a bomb hitting a target, we've got Mother Nature damage." Because the Air Force had archival footage from flyovers of Haiti in June 2009, it was able to compare before and after images, which have been vital to getting the relief to the right places, Johnson adds.

Those images have helped the military to figure out, for example, whether roads are still standing or blocked, find places to land helicopters, and peer into fuel storage tanks using infrared sensors to see whether they are full or empty. Aid organi­zations have contacted the U.S. military with requests as well. "They might say, 'Hey, we just had another mudslide. Can you take a look?' or 'Can we move people up this road and provide safe passage?' " explains Col. Robert Yahn Jr., vice commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing. Because Global Hawk images tend to be classified, the Air Force worked quickly to release the data.

The U.S. military's breadth of involvement in this particular humanitarian disaster has been unique, since the United Nations leadership in Haiti was "lost in 30 seconds," says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a regional expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We're superimposing a lot of our own U.S. military leadership for the substitution of many of the U.N. people who perished in Haiti. Will it be repeated? Probably not."

In the meantime, senior U.S. military officials say that it will be difficult to keep up such a large-scale operation for an extended time. The troops "will put in the long hours required to do this, but eventually they have to back off to get back to their normal 60-hour" workweeks, says Yahn. "When you have something like this pop up, you've got to be able to support it," he adds. "But we couldn't support this effort indefinitely."

It was a sentiment echoed last week by Pentagon leadership. “The truth is, no one can provide the kinds of assistance we can, and we are happy to be doing it,” Morrell said. “It shows the world we are not a one-dimensional force, we are a force for good.” That said, operations in Haiti have meant that the military has had to cancel “a couple of training exercises” for units on their way to war, though, Morrell added, “that’s not the end of the world.” There is, too, the issue of cost for a Pentagon that this week submitted its budget to much scrutiny. “This is a very expensive operation,” Morrell concluded. “And the meter is running.”