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Last week, Al Jazeera English showed a 24 minutes documentary by filmmaker Vaughn Smith on American MEDEVAC crews in Afghanistan. The film is both an independent exploration of their mission and an emotional testament to their professionalism. It is a powerful film. It is more than just interesting to watch, it is important to watch.

Posted by Christopher Albon in Army | 11 Comments

Somehow during his tenure as SOUTHCOM commander, current EUCOM commander and Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James G. Stavridis, found time to pen a 292 page book on the United States’ relationship with Central America (except Mexico), South America, and the Caribbean. The book was just published by NDU press and is available for free on their website.

Stavridis’ book, Partnership For The Americas, is not your typical command memoir; rather it reads more like a manifesto on the potential of soft power in US-South relations. His main takeaway point: “We are all in this together”.

The book covers a range of topics, from counter-narcotics operations to innovation in the Department of Defense, but of particular interest to me is the Admiral’s chapter on health engagement. Specifically, the role he argues medical diplomacy can play in a combatant command:

“It may seem at first incongruous for a combatant command, even one which strives to be as interagency-oriented and forward-leaning as U.S. Southern Command, to be engaged in efforts to improve public health. And perhaps it is, particularly if that is how our engagement efforts are expressed or viewed. If, however, we restructure our strategic approach and message to convey that we subscribe to the understanding that “public health” plays a vitally important role in maintaining long-term stability, then we can restate our strategic objectives more along the lines of removing and/or reducing health issues as a potential factor to increased likelihood of conflict. Thus, our continuing commitment to engaging in what some have termed “medical diplomacy” becomes inherently synchronized with our previously stated strategic goals to promote security, enhance stability, and allow for economic prosperity.” (Stavridis 2010, 140)

This is not something you would expect to read from a man occupying the same office as Eisenhower and Ridgway. However, Stavridis is absolutely correct. While the core competency of the American military will always be combat operations, there are a growing number areas where United States interests and goodwill can best be secured through soft power, including health diplomacy. In an ideal world these tasks would be the responsibility of USAID and the Department of State, but, to adapt a phrase from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: you advance US interests with the agencies you have, not the agencies you want. And if you can do so with hospital ships instead of gunboats, all the better.


A Korean Dunkirk

December 2010


Craig Hooper and I have a new article on The Atlantic discussing the evacuation of US citizens off the Korean peninsula in the event of renewed hostilities. We argue that the difficulty of evacuating 140,000 US citizens and select foreign nationals might well require the US to ask China and its military for assistance:

Even under the best conditions, a mass evacuation is no easy task. In July 2006, as a battle brewed between Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants, the U.S. took nearly a month to evacuate 15,000 Americans. According to the Government Accountability Office, “nearly every aspect of State’s preparations for evacuation was overwhelmed”, by the challenge of running an evacuation under low-threat conditions in a balmy Mediterranean summer.

Evacuating a Korean war-zone would be far harder. And the U.S. would likely have no choice but to ask China for help.

Read the full article at The Atlantic.

In late October and early November, Thailand’s southern provinces were hit by major flooding. The flooding, triggered by a tropical depression, affected around 100,000 people by one account, with waters up to three meter high.

In response, the Thai government sent the Royal Thai Navy vessel that is an oddball of world navies. While most coastal nations maintain naval forces, only handful operate aircraft carriers (Brazil, France, India, Italy, Russia, Spain, Thailand, UK, US). The vessel, HTMS Chakri Naruebet, is the flagship of the Royal Thai Navy and is the smallest aircraft carrier in operation. Since being built by Spain in the mid-90s, the carrier has been most famous for rarely leaving port (one source claims the ship only has funding to lease port one day a month). However, it does deploy sometimes. Since coming into service the ship has taken part in four disaster relief missions. This makes disaster relief a (if not the most) common mission for the ship.

However, you’d be wrong to compare the HTMS Chakri Naruebet’s disaster relief mission with those of the United States Navy. Based on an article in the Pattaya Daily News, the aircraft carrier contribution to the relief effort was limited to single truck load of supplies (mostly bottled water, according to the photos in the article) and a few helicopter flights over the disaster area. Far from being the nations knight in grey armor, the carrier’s mission seems to be mostly disaster relief theater on the part of the Thai leadership. This is not the first time Thai military has been used to provide token disaster relief, in mid-october Thai Royal Highness Princess Soamsavali ordered two Amphibious Assault Vehicles to assist flood victims in Thai’s northeast region. Two! You’d probably be better off hiring some local fishing boats.

Ninety-five percent of the books I read are dense monographs on military affairs and public health, and would never have much appeal to the general public. The fact I stay up late every night reading them is a solid sign that I have found a topic I am passionate about. In September however, I broke my pattern and bought my very first comic book, admittedly entirely because I am good friends with one of the authors.

But now it seems this comic book thing is catching on. Last month, the Naval Health Research Center published its own comic book on US medics, called The Docs, and I admit that it is pretty good. And the best part: it is free!

PLAN’s new purpose-built hospital ship, Peace Ark, spent last week anchored off Kenya’s coast while providing medical assistance to Kenyan citizens:

The crew, which leaves the port of Mombasa tomorrow, has been doing an average of six operations, 80 physical examinations, 110 dental check-ups, 35 CT scans, 200 DR examinations, 240 ultra sound cases and 170 heart check-ups per day.

The Peace Ark hospital has 428 medical and support staff. They include neurologists, surgeons, radiologists, dermatologists, biomedical engineers and psychologists.

Other facilities are a rescue helicopter, 32 medical departments including Chinese herbal medicine, 300 hospital beds and a wide range of diagnostic medical equipment.

The daily stats offer some insight into the medical assistance capacity of the new hospital ship, however that is not what interests me. What interests me is that PLAN first humanitarian assistance deployment is already scoring major public diplomacy victories for China. Need proof?

Today news of the Peace Ark’s visit to Kenya was posted on the popular social new website Reddit. Within four hours over 840 readers had voted up the story to the top page, where it currently remains. Another further 270 readers had commented on the story. The most popular comment? “When is it visiting the USA?”

While the mainstream media has turned its attention elsewhere, the US military’s disaster relief operation in flood-ravaged Pakistan continues. Despite the fact that the operation is winding down, 26 US military helicopters still remain in Pakistan with others based offshore. These aircraft have been part of a response that has airlifted more than 21,000 flood victims and delivered 15 million pounds of supplies since July. Below is the second in a series of photos of this operation in action.

Caption: A Marine Corps Super Stallion helicopter from VMM-266, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, flies in route to deliver relief supplies during humanitarian assistance operations in the southern province of Sindh, Pakistan. Photo by Capt. Paul Duncan.

Caption: U.S. Marines with the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 Reinforced, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit unload food off a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter during flood relief operations in the Pano Aqil province, Pakistan, Oct. 11.

Caption: Pakistan civilians patiently wait as the U.S. Marines with the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 Reinforced, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit unload food off a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter during flood relief operations in the Pano Aqil province, Pakistan, Oct. 11.

Caption: The 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron delivers aid and supplies to Skardu Airfield, Pakistan as well as transports internally displaced persons back to Chaklala Air Force Base, Pakistan aboard their C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, Sept. 24. Photo by Staff Sgt. Andy Kin.

Read the rest of this entry »

In late 1949, things were looking bleak for Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces. Two million Nationalists had just fled from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan, and now the Communists looked poised to invade the island. Despite the fact that Communist forces had experience with amphibious operations and that a Communist invasion of Taiwan would likely have been successful, the operation never happened. What was the reason for Taiwan’s salvation? According to one source [gated], it was a waterborne parasite: schistosoma japonicum.

Lacking proper landing boats, Communist military leaders knew they would have to rely on junks to ferry soldiers across the Taiwan Strait. However, without access to proper port facilities in Taiwan the junks would not be able to get close enough to shore to disembark their troops directly onto dry land. The Communists’ solution was simple: the troops would swim from the junks to the invasion beaches. To prepare for their swim, soldiers of the invasion force were given months of swimming lessons in canals on the mainland.

However, unbeknownst to invasion planners, the canals were infested with schistosoma japonicum parasites. Soldiers started to get sick soon after the lessons began. Eventually, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Communist soldiers came down with schistosomiasis and were in no condition to participate in the operation. This represented the core of the invasion force. The outbreak delayed the invasion six months and before the Communists could mount a new operation the Korean War began and American warships positioned themselves in the strait. The window of opportunity had closed.

Source: Kiernan Jr, F. A. 1959. “The blood fluke that saved Formosa.” Harpers Magazine: 45–47.

Special thanks to Jonathan Shainin for obtaining a copy of the above Harper’s article.

Shilling alert: Over at The New Ledger, fellow USNI contributor Craig Hooper and myself have a new piece advocating for the creation of a second Great White Fleet.

The United States can do anything, but it cannot do everything. With our attention and resources already committed near capacity around the globe, the U.S. needs strong partnerships to build a more resilient, secure world. A new Great White Fleet is an opportunity to build the relationships we need to face the threats of the coming decades. Describing the original Great White Fleet before its departure, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Robley Evans proclaimed that “we are ready at the drop of a hat for a feast, a frolic, or a fight”. In the 21st century, the world knows America can fight. It is time we remind the world we can feast and frolic as well.

Check it out.

Last week, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed its first purpose-built hospital ship on an 87 day medical diplomacy mission. The 10,000 ton vessel, called Peace Ark, will “provide medical treatment to soldiers and officers serving in the Gulf of Aden”, “provide medical treatment to people in five African and Asian countries – Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles and Bangladesh”, and “conduct various exchange programs with medical workers in the countries the ship calls at”.

This launch marks a major soft power first for Beijing. The cruise is almost certainly inspired by the successes of similar US medical stability operations conducted by USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy. However, it is important to note that, like US hospital ships, Peace Ark is a dual-use vessel. America’s hospital ships were originally designed and built to provide medical care during large scale military operations. Likewise, Peace Ark is exactly the type of ship needed during a major amphibious action against Taiwan.

Check out Raymond at Information Dissemination for some good commentary.

Posted by Christopher Albon in Navy | No Comments
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