Friday, January 15, 2010

The Calm Before The Storm in Haiti

At Southern Command, we are also working with our partner nations to meet challenges to the Community of the Americas—whether they are international terrorism, illicit trafficking, international crime, poverty, inequality, corruption, radical movements, illegally armed groups, mass human migrations, natural disasters, or other humanitarian crises. It is critical to this endeavor that we also stem the tide of anti-U.S. populism and open the door for improved prosperity and security in the region. Through communicating to the people of the region our shared values, what in today's military is called "strategic communications," we are sending the message that we are collectively committed to the people of the Community of the Americas.

Sailing in Southern Waters: A New Wind, By Admiral James Stavridis, USN, Proceedings, May 2007
On Friday morning as you wake up and read this post, there will begin to be media panic that chaos is breaking out throughout Port-au-Prince. The State Department and SOUTHCOM have hopefully already predicted this event in the unfolding crisis. We are entering a 48-72 hour phase where the absence of physical security becomes a contributing factor to the existing catastrophe. It will not be an indicator of failure however, even if it may be suggested as such on TV as hours and hours of coverage unfold over a three day weekend in the United States. It should, however, serve as a reminder that failure to set expectations with strategic communications by US government leadership to both our citizens and the world over the last 48 hours will have set back our global strategic communications efforts made in the emerging soft power campaign.

Things are going to get a lot worse in Haiti before they get better, and that was never clearly articulated by the President, State Department, SOUTHCOM, or Rajiv Shah to the American people, who may begin to doubt our governments efforts in the very near future. President Obama is positioned to take a political hit for what happens over the next 48-72 hours for apparently having advisors who are treating Haiti as anything but the most important event of his political career to date.

In my opinion, and I will let time determine the accuracy, so far it is my impression the Obama administration appears to be completely unaware of how much trouble Haiti can bring upon his Presidency. I'll bet a Heineken keg that if the President attends a Martin Luther King event Monday instead of focus on what is going to be a political public relations nightmare unfolding in Haiti on television, it will cost the President 5 points in his approval ratings and he will be dogged by claims from his own political party that he is as distracted with Haiti as Bush was during Katrina.

The stakes at risk in Haiti are high for SOUTHCOM and the Navy, even if the Department of Defense is not the lead agency in Haiti. The trust and relationships that have been built on promises kept to the Caribbean and Latin America by ADM Stavridis in SOUTHCOM will come crumbling down around us if we do not get Haiti right. The Navy has made several decisions over the past many years that shape the resources available today for Haiti. This included several calculated bets that have been discussed in the halls of Congress many times. The wisdom of those decisions is soon to be determined, and failure to meet the demand placed on the Navy by the American public's interest in Haiti right now will create damning public criticism that will significantly influence any plans for POM 12.

The outbreak of violence in Haiti and the perception of chaos on television is not what has my alarm bells going off. My alarm bells are going off because I am not convinced by the information that has been released to the public that SOUTHCOM is pushing hard enough. Today's press conference is illustrative, and I would not be surprised to learn if reporters in attendance walked away concerned. I do not get a sense of urgency in 'leaning resources forward' from General Doug Fraser that the situation appears to demand. With that said, lets examine what the Navy is doing.
Tomorrow morning the United States carrier Carl Vinson will arrive on station. It will bring with it a complement of 19 helicopters. It has 30 pallets of relief goods. And it will now provide the platform in which we can take care -- get around the poor infrastructure in Haiti to get goods to where they need to be, most needed. And so we'll work actively to support that during that time frame.

In addition, on the 19th we will have three ships of an amphibious ready group, headed by the USS Bataan, with roughly 2,200 Marines, heavy equipment, and the ability to move that heavy equipment from ship to shore to start providing capacity and capability there. We will continue over those days to have elements of the 82nd Airborne Division arrive with approximately 1,000 -- excuse me -- 700 soldiers will be on the ground within the next four days. They're there to help assist in the relief efforts.

And finally, on the 22nd we'll have the United States Navy ship the Comfort. The hospital ship Comfort will arrive in Haiti. We are aggressively pursuing every action we can to provide relief to Haiti.
This is an awesome response by the Navy based on initial calls to action of 2 days ago while we still lacked solid information to work with in the early hours of an emerging crisis. What is currently in motion as outlined represents the decisions of the first 48 hours, and is very commendable. With that said, the decisions of the next 48-72 hours carry with them serious consequences for our nation, and I do not get the sense with the public statements that the severity of the strategic consequences is being recognized at many levels of government.

Lets start by looking at more solid information learned over the first 48 hours.

Facts: 48 Hours Later

The State Department has identified the solid number of three million people that are in need of aid. There are currently two pipelines into Haiti. One would be the limited roads from the Dominican Republic that have already been log jammed at the border and has everything moving very slowly. Fuel on the road is already a major concern. The other pipeline is a single runway airport, also log jammed and also suffering from fuel concerns.

We obviously cannot depend on the limited road system from the Dominican Republic or the single runway airport to meet the logistical demands of a catastrophe involving 3,000,000 people. Rajiv Shah needs a logistics expert - like yesterday, or he is going to have a real short term at USAID. This WSJ article begins by describing the mess the Air Force was dealing with Thursday at the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, but goes on to identify the bigger problem is the condition of the port in Port-au-Prince.
Making matters worse is the that supplies cannot come in by sea. Haiti's main seaport has "collapsed and is not operational," says Maersk Line's Mary Ann Kotlarich. The main dock is partially submerged. Cranes that moved containers on and off ships at the port are now partially under water and listing badly. Ships carrying supplies have nowhere to dock.

Numerous maritime companies are trying to devise stop-gap solutions, but nothing is in place yet.

"Nothing has been proposed that would really be a solution at this point," says Mark Miller of Crowley Maritime Corp., a Jacksonville, Fla., shipping company that maintains an extensive logistics network in the Caribbean.

Maersk Line operates a small ship that unloads containers from larger vessels and then brings them to the port. That vessel is currently anchored off the coast of Port-au-Prince, as the company tries to determine how it can be put to use.

Shipping companies are now examining other areas in the vicinity to see if they can find a place that could serve as a makeshift unloading area for ships.
The port issue will make or break the entire effort in Haiti. Regardless of everything else happening right now, the units being deployed as outlined in this Navy Times article will ultimately determine how the world sees the US effort in Haiti. If they are able to rapidly reopen port services, the US will achieve a significant strategic victory in the 21st century. If they are unable to rapidly reopen port services, the consequences will be devastating to the strategic interests of the United States.

The people are going to start getting hungry and thirsty, and social order is going to start breaking down over the next 48-72 hours. Nineteen small Navy helicopters are not going to be able to meet the demands of 3,000,000 people, nor will they come close to reaching or even being consistently visible to a significant number of those people. How far would you go to provide food and fresh water for your family when social order is breaking down everywhere around you?

The Next 48-72 Hours Matter

The other day at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium, ADM Harvey discussed concerns regarding the consequences of Norfolk being taken out of operation. The maritime services have participated in many conferences since 9/11 discussing the responses necessary to open ports following disaster. In the situation before us today, Port-au-Prince represents a port of 3 million people less than 1000 nautical miles from Norfolk that following this catastrophe, requires the port facilities opened for survival.

As I am looking at the assets that will be moved into place, my concern is that because distances at sea add time to response, and because the scope of the disaster is so large, I have serious concerns that sufficient resources will not be arriving in time to influence the soft power strategic objectives at stake with Haiti. So far in the 21st century, when "shit happens" on land, the most important resources provided by the US Navy to support US operations on land have been aircraft carriers, the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command, and the Maritime Sealift Command. I have several questions, and I believe some of the answers to these questions will be indicators of a successful US response or an unsuccessful US response unfolding.

How long will it take the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command to open up the port in Port-au-Prince? I think everyone in the United States with concerns of a disaster in a major US port should watch closely to see what that answer is.

How effective will the helicopter operations of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) be in meeting the demands of this crisis? Will the decision by the US Navy not to build a medium lift helicopter carry significant consequences regarding the capacity for the US Navy to respond to this disaster?

Has SOUTHCOM responded sufficiently with US assets, specifically assets carried forward by the MSC related to supporting over the shore logistics? Will SOUTHCOM insure enough pipelines are available from sea to sufficiently meet the quantity of aid that will be required to support a humanitarian operation of 3 million people in a timely manner? If ships with full loads of aid end up sitting off the coast while people are visibly starving, SOUTHCOM will lose credibility with nations throughout the region.

Can only three amphibious ships provide enough capability to support the over the shore logistics requirements for a large city without a functioning sea port? How influential would the capabilities of the proposed, but rumored to be canceled in FY2011 budget, Sea Basing concept be to this operation? General Conway needs to send a memo to Ray Mabus that his February 16 wargame is happening right now in Haiti.

The Marine Corps is poised to be the only winner in an operation where the potential for many losers exist. The Marines understand HA/DR, strategic communications, and soft power better than anyone else the US - including the State Department in my opinion. Perhaps the Marine Corps should be mobilizing more than just a single MEU or two, just in case? 3,000,000 people is a lot of people.

How proactive is SOUTHCOM being in preparing follow on assets that may be necessary before full awareness is determined regarding the requirements? Are we accurately predicting events before they unfold, controlling the chaos as necessary as we place assets? I am specifically thinking of security requirements for 3,000,000 people should large scale violence break out, but my thoughts in this regard also include assets like MSC vessels with equipment like INLS that an amphibious construction battalion might need to potentially open a harbor location outside the existing port facilities.

So far, the response by the rest of the international community have not been very significant, suggesting that it is possible the rest of the world expects the US to do the vast majority of the work. To answer yesterday's question that asked who will be the nation to step up like India did after the 2004 SE Asian Tsunami - the answer appears to be no one. This is a troubling early trend.

I believe the strategic success of Haiti operations rests upon a sufficient quantity of supplies being capable of reaching the people of Haiti by sea in time to prevent a catastrophe to turn into something much worse. It is the responsibility of the Navy to enable port access, a responsibility the Navy cannot afford to fail in executing.

Strategic Communications

One topic kept popping up today among many observers: why is China kicking the State Department's ass in strategic communication in Haiti? It doesn't look good when somehow the Chinese can get a fully loaded plane into Haiti all the way from China before we can get many of our own search and rescue teams in from the US. I sat dumbfounded watching CNN this afternoon seeing a big red Chinese flag waiving in the background, and became frustrated when I saw a different Chinese flag an hour later behind an NBC reporter in a different area. There cannot possibly be that many Chinese in Haiti already, and they did bring humanitarian supplies and not flags, right? What the heck is going on?

This is soft power; symbolism and perception matters a lot to achieving strategic objectives in disaster recovery and humanitarian response operations. In the opening hours of crisis, the people are still in shock. The first 48 hours is the calm before the storm, and every detail in public communication and public diplomacy matters. I was seriously impressed when I saw State Department folks engaged in an actual conversation on Twitter today, but every element of government needs to get organized a bit better in the online space.

How many different map applications do we really need anyway? Here is the Navy's version of a Haiti map, IE only, and does not include information on the ground from folks who are uploading to open source maps. Everyone has a map meaning there are many maps, but if everyone knew to use the same map it could be advertised and utilized by people on the ground with phones capable of reading maps. Maps are an example where the lack of synchronization in agency capabilities is hampering an information opportunity, and many maps is just as effective as no maps in contributing towards a whole of government common picture that interfaces with the public on the ground. Someone at State or DoD needs to organize information opportunities like maps and other redundant data generation opportunities emerging in the crisis towards common and shared goals where governments, private groups, and people can organize, utilize, and synchronize.

Is the Twitter hash tag the Navy uses #Haiti or #USHelpsHaiti? You people in Navy information office need to get on the same page now that you have shifted virtually all of your strategic communications to online and social media. You also need to engage the American people, because simply broadcasting facts or photos creates almost no connection between your communication efforts and the very real personnel patriotic unity that is eminating from the people of the United States over Haiti right now. Navy information folks need to be real people in giving information right now, and not only a link provider. Navy information folks are connecting our Navy's actions with our nations people; be a live connection.

If the US Navy ships off Haiti are not flying their battle flags, then the US Navy has not spent enough intellectual energy developing a comprehensive soft power strategy in disaster response. I was disappointed today when a photo of the USS Carl Vinson flying the battle flag at sprint speed after dawn did not pop up as the front page picture on Navy.mil. A strategic communication opportunity wasted in my opinion, and it would have been a hell of a lot more significant towards shaping the perception of the US Navy response in Haiti than anything that might come from repeating the CHINFO Rhumb Lines talking points distributed on the crisis today.

It will probably be worth the time and effort to get a picture from the three ship ARG flying battle flags Saturday afternoon when the press starts pressing home the chaotic picture in Haiti on 24/7 news. The US Navy needs to prepare for the coming battle for hearts and minds, including those at home whose confidence in the effort will begin to waiver as events turn chaotic in Haiti.

Beginning Friday, the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) becomes the representative of the emotional and financial unified patriotic American sympathy and support the American people are extending to the Haitian people, and the US Navy needs to be clearly thinking in detail about how to best represent that American spirit when conducting operations in what will likely soon turn into chaotic conditions.

It is a three day weekend for most Americans with Martin Luther King holiday coming Monday, and as social order breaks down in Haiti, the events in Haiti are going to be widely observed by the American people. The decisions made and the actions taken over the next 48-72 hours will significantly influence the perception of the entire world regarding the United States, the United States Navy, and whether he realizes it or not - the President of the United States himself.

Given the scale of the crisis and the interest and attention it is receiving globally, it is very likely the legacies of people ranging from Rajiv Shah, Hillary Clinton, General Doug Fraser, and Barack Obama will be determined based on decisions made over the next few days and the events of the next week. If the Navy struggles to open the port, Admiral Roughead may take incoming as well.

Perception is a powerful thing, and one of the most important things in achieving soft power strategic objectives during HA/DR operations. I hope everyone has been advised what is at stake in Haiti.

blog comments powered by Disqus

site stats