Forces Take Pre-emptive Measures To Improve Response

October 2008
By Rita Boland

U.S. military, U.S. civilian and German military Multinational Planning Augmentation Team (MPAT) planners update relief operations during the Southeast Asia tsunami response effort.
Multinational partnership connects militaries and other agencies early to improve cooperation before disaster strikes.

They may not exactly be the neighborhood watch, but countries in, around and concerned with the Asia-Pacific region have banded together to protect the area’s interests. A program headquartered at U.S. Pacific Command brings operational-level planners together several times a year to develop standards and conduct exercises to promote interoperability and streamline missions in the area. Though the program is voluntary and has no authority to mandate any actions, the work and relationships have made a significant difference during crises in various nations.

The Multinational Planning Augmentation Team (MPAT) first began at the turn of the new millennium and was established by U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) and other countries’ defense chiefs to enable the region’s militaries to respond with greater speed, effectiveness, interoperability and unity of effort for small-scale contingencies and missions that can be characterized as military operations other than war. “It’s not really an organization,” Scott Weidie, MPAT branch chief, explains. “It’s a program.”

MPAT offers an opportunity to improve working relationships during these smaller, noncombat efforts that require rapid response by a number of countries operating together. A secretariat for the program is posted at PACOM, and the command provides resources for the team, but the program works in a fiduciary manner for all the participating countries. “Everything we do is by consensus,” Weidie says.

Currently 33 countries participate, most from the Asia-Pacific region but also some European and North American nations such as France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. The Asia-Pacific region generally entails the PACOM area of responsibility, but is really defined by the scope of MPAT. For example, Madagascar and Mauritius fall under the new U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) area of responsibility, but those nations participate in MPAT. Weidie and four contractors make up the secretariat and run the day-to-day operations for the countries involved. They also have formal reporting requirements within PACOM, participate in exercises, run workshops and respond to taskings especially for multinational participation. There are no liaison or exchange officers at PACOM dedicated to MPAT, but Weidie and his team do work through those personnel as well as through embassies, attachés and security assistance officers from foreign militaries.

During regular operating times, the MPAT staff coordinates among different member countries and plans upcoming events. In addition, staff members work with embassies, craft exercises and objectives, and respond to queries by entities such as the U.S. State Department to create and refine methods to work with partner nations. Weidie says that running the program is challenging because the member nations have different languages, cultures and capabilities. It takes longer to coordinate and carry out tasks with multinational partners, but improving that interaction is what the team must do well to be successful.

Success in multilateral cooperation leads to achieving MPAT’s four main goals and objectives: increase speed of response in a crisis; be more effective during missions; have more interoperability among responding nations and work toward unity of effort. Because MPAT is composed of volunteers, the team would never respond as “MPAT” to an event. Rather, each sovereign state makes the decision to offer, ask for or extend help. Decisions on resource and asset allocation also are made nationally. Countries often choose to deploy planners who participate in MPAT when responding to a natural disaster or other event, so the boots on the ground have worked with each other before and understand how to operate with other international responders.

Weide explains that MPAT is like a community program. “It’s not security focused in any way,” he says. “It is what it is for whatever the nations want to contribute and get out of it.” During noncrisis times, most participating countries contribute planning personnel at various times in the year for MPAT activities. Twice a year, members meet to consider the team’s base document, the multinational force standard operating procedures (MNF SOP). Those meetings allow the nations to develop new procedures as well as update and refine other procedures to ensure the relevancy of how members plan and execute operations as a multinational force. The MNF SOP is geared toward headquarters at the joint task force or combined task force level.

The document has been in development since 2002, and most changes made now are refinements, not additions of new procedures. At approximately 970 pages, the document is not designed to be read end-to-end or to be used in its entirety, and MPAT nations use only the sections they need at any given time. Weidie describes the document as well-advanced and the best example of its type.

Also held twice is a year is Tempest Express, a tabletop information-sharing event in which participants take a scenario (generally fictional) and plan their response operations. In addition, a number of nations take part in various full-scale multinational exercises such as the annual Cobra Gold in Thailand. These planning and exercise events produce what Weidie calls the most important product of MPAT—relationships with key partner nations. Between 23 and 27 nations attend most MPAT events, but participation fluctuates based on the financial and operational concerns of each nation.

The teamwork extends beyond militaries as well, including representatives from United Nations, nongovernmental and increasing numbers of civilian government agencies from different countries. Nonmilitary organizations are involved in all facets of MPAT, including writing the MNF SOP, the tabletop events and the big exercises.

MPAT strives to build a whole-of-government approach because that arrangement offers the best solutions in many crises. Working with humanitarian agencies during preparation and training times is especially important for MPAT, because in most situations those organizations arrive first and remain after the military and other government agencies leave. Doctrinally, military involvement is the last resort in a crisis. Troops play a role only long enough to bring life saving and human suffering down to a level that humanitarian agencies can handle on their own.

MPAT military planners and a representative from the United Nations Joint Logistics Centre plan the delivery of food assistance in response to the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004.
Weidie emphasizes the importance of working with nontraditional allies in the Asia-Pacific theater, explaining that much of the success in the region has been accomplished through cooperation. “I think that’s the biggest benefit of the program, to work in a multilateral type of fashion,” he says. During the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the region in 2004, personnel from 12 nations established a combined coordination center in Thailand. Representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development/Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Joint Logistics Centre, and the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent also were involved in that center. Though it did not serve as a formal command and control headquarters, the center did facilitate interactions among the various responders. “We don’t really have a NATO,” Weidie shares. “A lot of these things have to be done in a cooperative fashion.”

Through relationships established in MPAT, key personnel had an easier time interacting with each other during the responses to the devastation. Weidie explains that because no treaty or alliance directs the efforts of MPAT members, and they often respond in an ad hoc manner, the partnership can ensure efforts are supportive and complementary.

To do that, however, the different nations and organizations have to be able to communicate effectively. Many of the nations in the region lack complex communication systems, and those that do have them often possess systems that are incompatible with those of other countries. Systems in the area are not often shared, and most have to be unclassified. MPAT members use unclassified e-mail systems to share messages and work on unclassified networks such as the Asia-Pacific Area Network hosted by PACOM. Members have the ability to host Web portals for events, and during disasters will establish portals with nongovernmental agencies.

PACOM has contributed computers, servers and Internet lines to combined coordination centers during several disaster response efforts. The command has enough computers, servers and technicians to establish an entire unclassified wireless network in a combined center. Those capabilities are part of a PACOM crisis response package. The command deploys, establishes and runs wide area networks for civil-military cooperation and sends the equipment back to headquarters when missions are complete.

MPAT members also use cellular and regular landline telephones to coordinate much of their operations. “It’s amazing how much gets done in Asia on mobile phones,” Weidie shares. Personnel make calls and send text and short message service messages through cellular telephones during crisis response. Because the efforts are humanitarian and responsive, not military or security, missions do not have significant security components. Weidie explains that MPAT has not had to address any such issues and that the region is a relatively stable place to operate.

For more advanced communications needs, nations look to their militaries’ communications personnel and not to MPAT resources. Agreements exist among communications directorates in various militaries to establish certain capabilities when necessary, and MPAT countries realize not everyone has uniform access and networks. “It’s really a system of systems,” Weidie states.

Within the MNF SOP developed by MPAT, the partners address the nature of multilateral operations, including the different degrees of capabilities and access. The SOP has considerations for communications in establishing and running an MNF so personnel can plan appropriately. Most of the information is basic, baseline procedure. For example, the PACOM J-6 has an MPAT requirement for interoperability.

Weidie states that all the relationships and coordination clearly make a difference in a response scenario. Even before a crisis, MPAT members are better prepared to respond and have a higher level of interoperability. Establishing relationships early and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of various participants helps everyone come into a situation better prepared.

Despite all the team building and event preparation already carried out, MPAT countries continue to improve their relationships and meet new challenges. Members have to work through personnel changes and continually build up the knowledge base. The ongoing education process involves the incorporation of new individuals and new organizations. Weidie explains that in the humanitarian community a significant number of personnel have never participated in a multilateral operation, requiring increased information sharing and preparation before a real-world event occurs.

Because MPAT is not a security assistance program, it does not engage in training efforts. Instead, mid- to senior-level officers who already have basic military knowledge come together to share information and discuss the best methods for addressing situations as they arise. Weidie says that MPAT brings together experienced personnel who are unencumbered by having to make policy. The participants are often rising through the military ranks, but not yet in senior positions. Through MPAT, these officers can share ideas and carry out their business needs. In many instances the participants bring experience with on-the-ground multilateral and peacekeeping operations, sharing information on how to address certain problems.

When the nations come together in a time of noncrisis, they can establish the relationships they need for responding to an event. They also can plan more effectively with greater interoperability and efficiency. Within MPAT, officers and other representatives learn how to operate together, what capabilities and limitations other nations have and who is best at planning, communicating and other essential tasks. “It really makes for a lot more effective response to have the program, not just for the U.S., but for everyone,” Weidie says. When personnel know each other by name and have established personal relationships, they can cut through uncertainty and confusion to accomplish goals.

Web Resources
Multinational Planning Augmentation Team:
U.S. Pacific Command:
Cobra Gold: