Monday, January 03, 2005

The letters that count

UN relief operations co-ordinator in Indonesia, Michael Elmquist, is "absolutely thrilled" at the US presence in his region. "It's absolutely life-saving," he said, "They are the only ones who have the capacity to reach those parts of the population right now."

That was the response to the arrival of the five-ship carrier group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln and the deployment of its fleet of 17 Sea Hawk helicopters.

Now, the US presence has been heavily reinforced with the arrival in the Malacca Straights of the three-ship Marine expeditionary task force, comprising USS Bonhomme Richard (see here and here), the USS Duluth and the USS Rushmore (see here and here).

Together, these ships are able immediately to deploy a further 29 helicopters, in addition to their landing craft and other assets, plus a detachment of over 2,000 marines that includes a combat engineering unit. They will be going into action in Sri Lanka later this week.

"We've been racing across the ocean," says Rear Admiral Chris Ames, commander of the strike force, acknowledging that the situation in Sri Lanka remained unclear and that the mission for his Marines was still developing.

Ames said the Marines' primary responsibilities would include ferrying food and medical supplies to villages in need. He also stressed that having "boots on the ground" would bring badly needed manpower for constructing temporary shelters, clearing roads and operating water purification equipment. "We know a lot more today than we did yesterday," he said. "But we're not waiting for a perfect picture. There's so much to be done."

The Bonhomme Richard, which looks something like a mini aircraft carrier, has dozens of helicopters on board, along with three landing craft capable of launching groups of 100 Marines - or a load of anything from tractors to trucks - ashore on virtually any kind of beach.

On its way in to the disaster zone, the group has airlifted supplies from Singapore, relieving the pressure on local facilities, making it an entirely self-contained force that is able to deliver aid without in any way imposing any stress on the creaking infrastructures of the affected areas.

This is an example of real power, and the value one of the richest nations on earth can bring to humanitarian relief. The ships alone cost $1371 million and the helicopters cost at least another $200 million, financial muscle which dwarfs the efforts of all the other donor countries

Rear Admiral Ames summed up the value of the group, saying "We have capabilities across the strike group that is quite unique and particularly well suited for this type of humanitarian assistance disaster relief operation."

"We have about 29 helicopters that are heavy- and medium-lift capable and they can provide the reach to take the disaster food, water that are piling up across the region and distribute them into the remote sections where they are most devastated by the tsunami."

Colonel Thomas Greenwood, commanding officer, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, added: "We come with a lot of trucks, a lot of equipment which can make water, a lot of food and engineering gear when we go ashore in Sri Lanka. We cover the spectrum of not just delivering food and water, medical supplies but we can also remove debris from the roads and provide limited medical support and infrastructure improvements."

The USS Bonhomme Richard also has a 60-plus strong medical staff manning four operating rooms. Its hospital ward is also capable of taking in nearly 60 patients.

Interestingly, in its one o’clock news bulletin, BBC Radio 4 did not see fit to mention the arrival of this force – one of the most significant developments yet in the battle to bring aid to the region.

Thus, as the days and weeks pass, and the alphabet soup of agencies continue blathering about how much they have contributed, it will be important to remember the role played by those two little letters – US - and the utter uselessness of those other two - EU - or any other two you can think of.

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