US Armed Services Give Haiti a Lifeline From the Sea

"I don’t know what the hell this “logistics” is……BUT I want some of it” Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, 1942

The answer to the human cry for help in Haiti boils down to that one word: logistics and how to get the most of it through the fastest means possible. The need is enormous.  Haiti needs fresh water, medicine, immediate rescue assistance, medical care and triage, food and lastly shelter in massive doses for upwards of 3 million people.

Delivery of all that would – in a perfect world — be moved at breakneck speed through the air, on the ground and through sea ports unless one or all these logistical paths are severely crippled. The world humanitarian effort has to overcome the obstacles to deliver relief presented by a natural disaster of epic proportion and by the limited infrastructure of one of the poorest nations.

There may be other ways to do it, but as we’ve seen again and again the young men and women of the US armed forces are the go-to people and – as usual – they are performing an amazing task for the Haitian people.

Admiral King would marvel at what is being formed off of the coast of Haiti right now. It’s a sea-based hub of operations he could only dream of decades ago.

Hats off to our USAF personnel for quickly assessing, equipping, manning and bringing Port-au-Prince’s only airfield up to maximum efficiency. The single runway airfield is now reportedly supporting in excess of 92 relief flights a day while unfortunately having to prioritize landing permission as the number of humanitarian flights desired greatly exceeds its limited capacity. Tarmac space and handling equipment are now the greatest limitations.

Overland capability is complicated by damaged and ill prepared roads, many crowded with throngs of refugees fleeing the carnage of the city.  

Port-au-Prince’s sea port is damaged to the extent that currently no commercial shipping can enter or leave the port.  Which means the world is attempting to move a silo sized quantity of supplies and equipment through soda straw-sized logistical pipelines.

At least that was true until the US Navy arrived and replaced the soda straw with a rather large pipeline. Our Sea Base can quickly add to the limited amount of access and bring a much needed additional path for not only the immediate needs mentioned above yet also sustainment and heavy equipment which will be required in the days and months ahead.

Anchored by the Nimitz-class carrier USS CARL VINSON and ships of the USS BATAAN Amphibious Ready Group with their relief effort, they are providing  tailored (primarily vertical lift) aviation assets as well as multiple units afloat which are dramatically increasing the throughput of supplies and aid from the sea.

VINSON was able to sprint to the scene ahead of her counterparts with nautically breakneck speed in excess of 32 knots.  Heading toward Haiti without a second to spare, she picked up enroute some readily available pallets of much needed water, medicine, food supplies and (of course) additional aviation assets.  VINSON could have delayed some and completely filled her cavernous hangar bays with more essential supplies but time was of the essence and it is her additional throughput capability which was the most immediate need.

Ready to perform on arrival, VINSON and BATAAN about tripled the current vertical air lift capability on scene to help in the distribution of not only their supplies yet others already being stockpiled both on land and ships arriving daily. VINSON, able to produce 35,000 gallons of water by herself per day, when joined by the follow on vessels the sea base could contribute upwards of 900,000 gallons per day of the precious commodity.

Her three hangar bays and 4 ½ acre flight deck became a giant staging area for relief supplies to be properly palletized for helicopter lift and flown to numerous distribution points being established ashore. Each arriving USN, Military Sealift Command and Coast Guard vessel immediately increases the square footage of flight deck space available for staging “ready picks” (a method where skilled helicopter pilots hover their aircraft overhead while crewmembers below attach palletized cargo nets to hooks suspended below the helo which in turn never needs to land in order to pick up it’s load).  

In a matter of seconds, staged supplies are enroute to the shore while fork truck drivers and crews on each ship ready more supplies from below deck. Even to the trained eye it can become a true ballet in motion as swirling helos fill the sky delivering their goods. Among the many heroes today will be the often unsung skilled helicopter pilots and cargo handlers. They’re not as flashy as the ordnance loaders and jet jocks, but they do an amazing job no one else can.

Another amazing aspect of this sea base is that CARL VINSON alone arrives with 3 million gallons of jet fuel.  Enough to keep her helicopters in the air round the clock for days on end.  With her additional aircrew and ability to refuel and replenish her own stores along with additional throughput destined for Haiti while simultaneously launching and recovering aircraft her flexibility becomes almost limitless.

The arrival of the BATAAN ARG not only brings more of the same (albeit it in a somewhat different package) with many more operating rooms and beds to compliment those on VINSON, but also floodable well decks holding numerous smaller vessels and air cushion vehicles which can deliver goods to any suitable beachhead in massive quantity from the Sea Base.

Port-au-Prince’s damaged port is not required for this effort. No doubt though, they will also bring the necessary equipment, expertise and construction personnel (diving, salvage and port security teams, cargo handling battalions, harbor control operations, bulldozers, cranes, water buffalos (large fresh water distribution trailers etc.) to eventually return the port to full operation thus allowing vessels from all contributing nations to deliver stores.

And then there is the huge manpower asset provided by the embarked 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Not only is the Sea Base a monumental increase in logistical support, it is a self-sustained tail to the huge relief effort which will in turn not impact the fractured infrastructure ashore for its own life support.

I think it rather amazing that one of the most feared sights in the world among America’s enemies is a Carrier Strike Group or US Marine carrying Amphibious Ready Group off their shore, yet be the most welcomed sight by those in need. It is all in the eye of the beholder. America’s Navy, Coast Guard and Marines executing and delivering from the Sea.