For years, there has been one constant challenge for United States and coalition military operations in Afghanistan: insufficient rotary wing aircraft. Rotary assets ferry supplies, carry soldiers, and provide air support all over the country. Put bluntly, helicopters are the coin-of-the-realm: the more you have, the more you can do. And we do not have enough.
There has been numerous attempts to rectify the dearth of rotary assets, including some rather shady ones. However, helicopters still remain one of the most needed military resources in Afghanistan.
In response to the deadly flooding in Pakistan, the Pakistani military reassigned some helicopters from combat operations to disaster relief. For its part, the US military provided six helicopters to the relief efforts, however it kept the bulk of its rotary wing assets in Afghanistan:
“It’s a question of risk mitigation,” the official said. “Helicopter lift is critical to the mission” in Afghanistan, where road transport is difficult and dangerous, he said. “It’s not like we have a great surplus of helicopters in theater that are not engaging.”
It would also be absurd to say that we can’t afford to divert resources from the war to emergency flood relief, when much of the story told on behalf of the war is 1) all about “winning hearts and minds” and 2) all about Pakistan; and when the press is reporting that Islamist militants in Pakistan are cleaning our clocks in the battle for flood relief.
However, it looks like the Marines are coming to the rescue. Today it was announced that USS Peleliu is waiting in international waters off the coast of Karachi with 19 Marine helicopters available for disaster relief missions. These aircraft will allow the six US helicopters mentioned above to return to combat operations.
This week’s row over the allocation of helicopters highlights a greater and largely undiscussed issue. In a world of finite resources, when the needs of hard power and soft power conflict over an asset, which takes priority?
The answer is not as straightforward as you think. Department Of Defense Instruction 6000.16 states:
“It is DoD policy that: a. MSOs [editor: Medical Stability Operations] are a core U.S. military mission that the DoD Military Health System (MHS) shall be prepared to conduct throughout all phases of conflict and across the range of military operations, including in combat and non-combat environments. MSOs shall be given priority comparable to combat operations and be explicitly addressed and integrated across all MHS activities including doctrine, organization, training, education, exercises, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and planning in accordance with Reference (b).” [Emphasis: Mine] (Department Of Defense 6000.16, 1)
Thus, under 6000.16, in at least one part of the US military, soft power should be given the same access to resources as hard power operations. The reality is that the allocation of resources must be a compromise between soft and hard power roles, balancing the benefits of having a resource in one role with the costs of lacking a resource in another. That is the very essence of strategy.
Editor’s note: I published the wrong version of this post for a few minutes. All fixed now. Apologies from my end.