The powerful earthquake and massive tsunami waves that devastated a huge area of Southeast Asia and killed more than 250,000 persons on Dec. 26 triggered one of the most intensive and challenging humanitarian air operations since the Berlin Airlift, more than half a century earlier.
US Air Force aircraft and crews flew most of the missions that carried relief supplies and equipment into the theater and a large percentage of the flights to distribute the materiel over the vast region affected by the tsunami waves.
By the time the US contribution to Operation Unified Assistance (OUA) was closing down in early February, American aircraft had moved more than 18 million pounds of relief supplies and equipment and nearly 8,000 passengers into and around the tsunami disaster area, according to Maj. Gen. David A. Deptula, director of air and space operations for Pacific Air Forces.
That was a major part of the 24 million pounds of materiel airlifted in a multiservice, multinational relief effort.
More than 2,000 airmen from 100 Air Force units and 14 bases, as far apart as Charleston AFB, S.C., and Kadena AB, Japan, were involved. They supported or flew 30 Air Force aircraft that conducted more than 1,400 sorties in the region and scores of long-haul missions into the theater by Air Mobility Command C-17s and C-5s, said Deptula. He served as the joint force air component commander (JFACC) for Combined Support Force 536, which was formed to conduct the tsunami relief effort.
Marine Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman Jr., commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force in Japan, commanded CSF 536
.Although Unified Assistance did not match the 1948-49 Berlin relief effort in total sorties flown or equal it and some later humanitarian missions in tons of cargo moved, the tsunami aid operation had to overcome challenges of distances and geographic scope far greater than any of the earlier airlifts, Deptula said.
“In ton-miles per day, Operation Unified Assistance, or the tsunami relief airlift mission, is way up there on top,” he said.
The US airlift effort also eclipsed recent humanitarian relief missions in the amount of materiel it moved daily, averaging 522,000 pounds of food, water, and other critical supplies per day over the 47 days of intense operations.
Some relief supplies and support equipment had to come by C-5 Galaxys and C-17 Globemaster IIIs all the way from the United States—more than 8,000 miles—to a central distribution point at U Tapao, Thailand.
From there, C-130 Hercules aircraft distributed the materiel to smaller airfields throughout the devastated area—spanning more than 1,000 miles—where Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawks and helicopters from other US services and other nations moved them to desperate survivors in isolated villages.
The intratheater airlift operated mainly from U Tapao in a “hub and spoke” system similar to that used by most US airlines, Deptula said.
Helicopters flown by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps and other nations then distributed the urgently needed aid to survivors in devastated villages and cities cut off from land routes.
“It is like links in a chain, extending the hand of relief from the American people, all the way from one side of the world to the other side of the world,” Deptula said.
Despite the vast distances and the often crude or damaged facilities they had to use, the Air Force aircraft and personnel overcame those obstacles with unmatched speed, joined in the theater by personnel and equipment from the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Coast Guard and 14 other nations.
“It is a chain of events, made up by the variety of capabilities that our nation possesses with airlift, that is unmatched by any other country in the world,” Deptula said. “We do it routinely and make it look easy, but in fact it’s quite a tribute to the airmen who make it all work.”
The disaster started with a nine-plus magnitude earthquake west of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It drove powerful waves at hundreds of miles an hour across thousands of miles of ocean toward the shores of two continents and scores of islands that were home to tens of millions.
As the waves approached land, they slowed but rose into a towering wall that demolished buildings, uprooted trees, and swept up people by the tens of thousands, then rushed back out to sea, dragging their victims with them.
The tsunami wreaked unprecedented havoc on vast stretches of the coastal areas of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the Maldives islands. Also hit were Somalia and Kenya, 3,000 miles away across the Indian Ocean.
As massive as the instant death toll was, it paled in comparison to the millions of people left injured, without medical assistance, shelter, food, or safe drinking water, and, in many cases, cut off from potential sources of relief.
Without immediate help, hundreds of thousands more could have died. And, in most cases, that help would have to come by air and by sea from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Within 36 hours of reports of the massive disaster, Air Force aircraft were taking off from Yokota AB, Japan, carrying relief supplies to U Tapao. Less than a day-and-a-half later, C-130s and helicopters were delivering those supplies to survivors.
US Transportation Command, headquartered at Scott AFB, Ill., put crews and aircraft from Air Mobility Command on alert as soon as it received reports of the disaster. On Dec. 29, it dispatched a C-17 from McChord AFB, Wash., to carry a maintenance package from Yokota to U Tapao, to support the Yokota C-130s that had been providing critical airlift within the tsunami area.
In the next few days, C-5 and C-17 airlifters were called on nearly 20 times, carrying helicopters, relief supplies, support personnel, and emergency responders into or around the disaster zone, TRANSCOM reported.
The theater airlift control center at TRANSCOM responded to the requests from the air mobility division of the Pacific Air Operations Center at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, Deptula said. The Pacific Air Ops Center then provided command and control and integration capability for all US fixed-wing missions within the Pacific theater.
Deptula said he also worked with liaison officers from Australia, Japan, and some of the tsunami-affected nations to coordinate their fixed-wing air missions.
The Navy also responded quickly, moving the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to Indonesia and using the Navy SH-60 Seahawk helicopters on board to deliver relief supplies to survivors.
That effort was bolstered with the arrival of an amphibious task force that included the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, and later USS Essex, which helped carry supplies ashore with Marine CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters and high-speed hovercraft.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Feb. 16 House Armed Services Committee hearing that 15,000 US service personnel, 25 ships, and 50 helicopters were involved in the effort.
The typical role for a JFACC is to help fight a war, but Deptula said the concept is the same whether it’s applied to battle or humanitarian relief. In both situations, the goal is “unity of effort and integration of effort to ensure smooth operations,” he said.
Air Force aircraft involved in the relief effort included 35 C-17s, 24 C-5s, 21 C-130s, six HH-60s, two KC-135s, and one C-21, Deptula said. He also controlled nine Navy P-3C patrol aircraft that conducted reconnaissance and survey missions.
TRANSCOM said Air Mobility Command staged out of Kadena three C-5s from Travis AFB, Calif., and one each from the Air National Guard at Stewart ANGB, N.Y., and Air Force Reserve Command at Lackland AFB, Tex., and Westover ARB, Mass. Also, four McChord C-17s staged out of U Tapao. A C-17 flew all the way from Charleston to carry Army civil affairs personnel and equipment into the theater.
Among the loads the airlifters carried were: communications equipment and personnel from the Marines’ 7th Communications Battalion on Okinawa; six HH-60s and two CH-46s and support equipment; two Marine Corps Force Service Support Groups; a Navy Seabee unit from Guam; a C-17 maintenance package from McChord; and personnel and equipment from the 18th Communications Squadron at Kadena. TRANSCOM also provided a tanker airlift control element (TALCE) out of Travis for on-site management of airfield operations, command, control and communications, aerial port services, maintenance, security, weather, and intelligence.
The seven-man TALCE team flew into the badly damaged airfield at Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and turned the small military facility into a major hub for distributing critical supplies into the devastated area.
“Our job was to take the chaos and make some sense of it,” TALCE member TSgt. David Satchell told a Pacific Air Forces reporter.
Edward Fox, a spokesman for the US Agency for International Development, said the Air Force’s logistical capability is “indispensable” to USAID and others in the international relief area “because we don’t have those types of assets.”
Deptula said the US relief operation may have gone a long way to improve America’s battered image in a predominantly Muslim region.
Deptula recalled flying on a helicopter delivery mission out of Banda Aceh to a small village where his party was “swamped by hundreds of children and the few adults who were there, all very enthusiastic, jumping up and down, patting [us] on the back.
“It was a very emotional event in terms of recognizing how much the people appreciate what we’re doing.”
“People, not just in Southeast Asia, but around the world, have a better insight into what the United States of America and the military is all about. And that is helping people in need and ensuring peace and stability around the world,” Deptula said. Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.–based military affairs reporter for Copley News Service and a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Sea Basing,” appeared in the July 2004 issue.