Multiple Elements Come Together to Aid Philippines Typhoon Response
Technology, training and improvisation were the real backbone of the network.
The success of Operation Damayan, the massive Philippines typhoon relief effort by the U.S. Pacific Command, owes as much to preparation as to execution, according to a U.S. official involved in the operation. Military communications equipment designed for easy entry and quick activation provided essential networking capabilities. Longtime multinational and bilateral exercises laid the groundwork for interoperability, both technological and organizational, between U.S. and Philippine armed forces. Commercial technologies, such as local cell systems that survived the storm, proved invaluable for onsite communications. And, U.S. Pacific forces had the foresight to preposition disaster relief equipment such as generators and water purification systems in the Philippines, where it was available for use immediately.
Col. James T. Dillon, USMC, is the assistant chief of staff G-6, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific (MARFORPAC). The primary responding Marine Corps elements were the III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), with the lead element being the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. They were forward deployed in Okinawa, and Col. Dillon states that this forward deployment was the key to enabling the rapid response after the typhoon struck.
Typhoon Haiyan hit the Visayas island group on November 8, 2013, local time. Within 48 hours of landfall, the Philippine government requested U.S. assistance. Lead elements of the 3rd brigade already were arriving in the Philippines as part of an incremental response.
The initial elements brought communications assets with them, and follow-on forces introduced additional communications resources. Equipping the lead elements was the Rapid Response Kit, which is associated with the Deployable Joint Command and Control System (DJC2). The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) has two of these joint systems, which draw equipment from the Joint Communications Support Element (JCSE). One is located in Hawaii under the JCSE, and the other is with the 3rd brigade in Okinawa.
This prepackaged communications equipment suite has four configurations, of which the Rapid Response Kits are the smallest and lightest. The DJC2 scales up through the En Route systems and the Early Entry system, and it tops off at the Core system. The Core system provides a command post with computers, screens and different network capabilities, including telephony. These more advanced configurations provided capabilities that were needed to an increasing degree as Operation Damayan progressed.
Rapid Response Kits are designed to be operated by only a few Marine communicators. They provide the capability to support up to 15 users with unclassified or classified networks. The kits offer a small videoteleconferencing capability with secure phones.
From the onset, Col. Dillon relates, the commander decided that the primary network for coordinating the humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operation would be the nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET). A Hawkeye Lite system and a SWE-DISH AN/USC-68 provided commercial Ku-band links, and an Inmarsat global area network terminal provided backup connectivity.
“The entire operation was unclassified, so the primary network for coordinating with other forces and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] was unclassified email, cellphones and BlackBerrys,” the colonel relates.
The first team entering the area set up at Villamor Air Base, the home of the Philippine Air Force in Manila. It was largely untouched by the typhoon’s ferocity, and the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Paul J. Kennedy, USMC, located his command post there. He had the Rapid Response Kit along with his cellphone and BlackBerry to support him, Col. Dillon relates. The Tacloban area, which suffered the worst damage from the typhoon, was farther south of Manila.
As expected, the cellphone system in Manila was untouched, which allowed U.S. personnel at Villamor to use their cellphones for immediate communication. Surprisingly, even the most devastated areas around Tacloban also had some cell service. “The cell system was pretty reliable, so when Marines showed up with their BlackBerrys, they immediately started roaming and picked up the signal,” Col. Dillon says. These cell links proved especially valuable for communicating with NGOs, which do not have access to conventional tactical military networks.
Yet even though Philippine cellphone systems largely were up and running, other challenges emerged. Col. Dillon notes that, even with their advanced gear, the Marines suffered from some electronic equipment failure. Fortunately, the Marines were able to overcome these failures as a matter of course.
One alternative means that served well was the exploitation of commercial Internet service providers (ISPs). This helped provide additional commercial Internet bandwidth into the mix for the unclassified traffic that defined Operation Damayan networking, and these ISPs were installed at the Marines’ headquarters.
PACOM received offers of support from a variety of governmental and commercial groups. In addition to the Defense and State department agencies, many industry vendors offered their own equipment. When the command could not accept direct contributions from vendors, it coordinated contact between those vendors and the Philippine armed forces. Col. Dillon relates that PACOM established a multinational coordination cell in the Philippines so it could legally coordinate commercial offers with Philippine officials.
In the disaster area, the Marines had only a small footprint, the colonel relates. An aviation control element handled the MV-22 Ospreys that flew in vital rescue and recovery supplies throughout the disaster region. A small Marine forward logistics group worked to coordinate and distribute supplies to the Philippine armed forces, which then distributed them to the people of the stricken area. Col. Dillon notes this logistics group was able to use both BlackBerrys and commercial ISP access for their coordination.
“Some of the challenges were overcome because the nature of responding to an HA/DR is quickly—an hour lost is an hour more suffering by the people,” the colonel observes. “They [the responders] didn’t necessarily have the luxury of time, so some of the natural obstacles to overcome—normal equipment failures, coordination of power support—had to be overcome quickly.”
One of the biggest assets for the relief operation was the long-established relationships between the Marines and the Philippine armed forces. Col. Dillon notes that MARFORPAC is the PACOM executive agent for Exercise Balikatan, which is a U.S.-Philippine exercise conducted annually with other Pacific allies. Over the years, the Marines and other PACOM elements have developed relationships with their Philippine armed forces counterparts through these exercises. The U.S. forces tapped those relationships, which helped speed action. And, these exercises helped instill in the Marines familiarity with the region.
PACOM’s All Partner Access Network, or APAN, served as the primary Web collaboration portal for sharing documents. Users could post documents on APAN as well as on the Sharepoint portals operated by III MEF and MARFORPAC. In addition to U.S. military forces, Philippine armed forces and NGOs used APAN for sharing information.
“Information flowed via unclassified email, cellphones and BlackBerrys, and the APAN portal,” Col. Dillon points out, adding that he was surprised how well the operation ran on these media.
Many of the worst expected HA/DR challenges never actually materialized, the colonel notes. Having these communications assets at hand helped alleviate logistical issues, which can arise in any emergency response. The primary focus for the local U.S. commander is to establish priorities for the limited transportation assets. To be able to respond to the event, the commander must be able to apportion supplies for the population, and that need must be balanced against the need for forward deployment of military equipment—which itself may be a prerequisite for effective response.
Some HA/DR-specific equipment had been prepositioned in Manila, Col. Dillon offers. This equipment was earmarked by the Marines for disaster response throughout the Asia-Pacific region, but its first use came close to home. None of this gear was communications equipment, but its presence helped speed emergency response efforts.
Even prepositioned equipment has its limitations. For future HA/DR events, Col. Dillon says the force could use small, lightweight expeditionary power systems. Also, smaller and lighter transmission systems would be beneficial. “If you’re the commander and you’ve been charged with, ‘get down there, assess the situation, start supporting the population, that’s your mission,’ you don’t want to have this huge logistics tail of communications equipment and generators going with you,” he emphasizes. “It requires a balance of bringing relief supplies versus bringing military gear.
“If you can lighten the load of communications support, you can lighten the load of power generation types of equipment,” the colonel continues. “Then you’ve helped the commander, because he’s only going to get so much lift up front. If he can put his gear in a couple of transit cases on a C-130 [aircraft], then the rest of the C-130 can be loaded with Marines and relief supplies, so you don’t put him in a dilemma [of conflicting priorities].” Providing a small lightweight expeditionary power system to go with the Rapid Response Kit “would be some great technology,” he says.
Also for the future, having a portable cellphone system could prove useful. Cellphones dominated boots-on-the-ground communications in the hardest hit areas, but the next HA/DR mission might not find an operable cell network on site. The Marines knew immediately after entering the Philippines that they would not need cell service support, so they did not request a portable network. However, the extant connectivity proved the utility of cell links in an HA/DR environment, and this lesson will be applied to future operations.
Above all, the biggest lesson learned from Operation Damayan may prove to be the importance of established relationships, Col. Dillon offers. The familiarity with both the country’s geography and its military proved invaluable. The command also is familiar with other countries in the Pacific Rim as a result of multinational exercises. “We should continue to build those relationships—especially communicator to communicator—during those exercises, and then during the exercises [we should] see how we can use some of these technologies,” he offers. He cites Pacific Endeavor as a communications exercise that serves as an excellent forum for exploring issues, such as communications technologies and processes, that can come up in an HA/DR operation.