Archive for the 'Haiti Earthquake' Tag

U.S. aircraft deliver relief supplies to the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in January 2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi

U.S. aircraft deliver relief supplies to the congested airport in
Port-au-Prince, Haiti in January 2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi

During the earthquake tragedy in Haiti, American aid planes often circled Haiti’s sole open runway for hours. How is this possible for a nation on an island? Would rapid revival of the seaplane capabilities perfected by the United States decades ago, materially improve such situations? And could seaplane technology be a force multiplier aligned with advances in stealthy, electrically-powered “E-Planes”, some of which could be airborne almost indefinitely?

In an era which prizes cost-effectiveness, emphasis on the coastal and littoral, and the innovative use of smaller, lighter forces, perhaps seaplane usage merits a review. Today, other maritime nations, and nations with maritime aspirations – such as Russia, China, Japan, Germany and Canada – each have impressive seaplane or amphibious aircraft programs underway. Even Iran has displayed maneuvers with numerous small indigenous military seaplanes, albeit their capabilities are uncertain.

For humanitarian and political situations such as Haiti and Japan, seaplanes could be uniquely capable of delivering large amounts of aid to earthquake, hurricane and tsunami victims, as well as rescuing survivors. This would be “showing the flag” in very productive way, and most importantly, delivering help speedily and efficiently. For purely military considerations, seaplanes can address urgent needs in coastal warfare, port security, maritime patrol, cyber warfare and decentralized “swarm” defense and attack.

Martin P6M SeaMaster with beaching gear in 1958. Naval Institute photo archive

Martin P6M SeaMaster testing beaching gear in Baltimore, Maryland in 1958. Naval Institute photo archive

A seaplane future is not merely hypothetical; many components were tangibly produced by the late 1950s, and some of the planes were in early series production and operational.[1] The main flying components of that force were the Martin Seamaster strike aircraft, the Convair Tradewind transport and tanker, and the Convair Sea Dart fighter. In addition to Navy use, both the Air Force, and Coast Guard had admirable records employing seaplanes after WWII. Airplanes such as the Grumman Hu-16 Albatross were not only “tri-service” but sometimes “tri-phibian” with land, sea, and “frozen-sea” – i.e. ski – versions.

By the late 1960s however, these and other major U.S. seaplane programs were canceled, and the seaplane was sunk without a trace from U.S. Navy service. And so the era ended. But should it? Recent advances in computerized design and composite aircraft construction, and discussions of rising sea levels, again pose the question – is there room in U.S. military and civilian doctrine and budget for a small but effective force of multi-role, long-range seaplanes?

Seaplanes, “E-planes”, and submarines may in fact be powerful cross-multipliers of force. The modern submarine’s almost unlimited capability for electrical generation and water electrolysis could provide indefinite fuel for stealth electrical or fuel cell engines of manned or unmanned sea planes and drones. Similarly, high-persistence sea planes could be the disposable, semi-autonomous eyes, ears, and delivery/retrieval platforms of submarines submerged many miles away. Perhaps most importantly, seaplanes could augment the recent increased national emphasis on cyber defense. Standing patrols would help address not just domestic cyber threats per-se, but the entire spectrum of offshore cyber, radio, electronic and electromagnetic threats. And they could ensure that such defense is not merely optimized for the Navy’s own networks and systems – vital as this is – but that it can efficiently protect American civilian assets with an effective deterrence and response – keeping these electronic and tangible “rogue waves” far from our shorelines.

Japanese ShinMaywa US-2 seaplane used for air-sea rescue. Image courtesy Wikipedia/Toshiro Aoki

Japanese ShinMaywa US-2 seaplane used for air-sea rescue. Image courtesy Wikipedia/Toshiro Aoki

In hindsight, the incremental costs and risks of a re-invigorated seaplane program can be expected to be a small fraction of the $40 billion spent on the V-22, with benefits and aircraft survivability equal or greater. And – as a counterpoint to the US/EU tanker acquisition spat – a American buy of a small quantity of say, ShinMaywa US-2s or Bombardier 415s may aid inter-country collaboration with our important allies. Perhaps a low-cost, high-impact, rapidly-effective plan could include such a buy until the United States’ own seaplane capability again “ramps up”.

We have spent hundreds of billions over the last few years guarding our vital sea lanes. We now need a judicious, cost-effective strategy for the Navy to help protect our “E lanes” – including not only tangible military action over the oceans, but domestic cyber assets, radio-frequency and electromagnetic activities. Hopefully, the next humanitarian crisis or military challenge will be aided both literally and littorally by seaplane technologies which are not “if only we still had” but rather “already here and available”.


[1] Trimble, Wiliam F. Attack from the Sea – A History of the U.S. Navy’s Seaplane Striking Force. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2005.



The USS Bataan (LHD-5) was one of the first ships directed towards Haiti after the massive January 12 earthquake, but, once the ship arrived to serve in Operation Unified Response, the Bataan ran into a hail of criticism over it’s slow start in accepting and treating wounded Haitians. One of my USNI pals was particularly tough on the flat-deck. Why was the Bataan so slow off the mark?

Well, the MSC has a likely answer. There might have been a darn good reason why the Bataan’s medical facilities were slow to get into the game….Why? The answer is simple–Water. The Bataan didn’t have any. Though the Bataan’s embarked media didn’t make much of a peep about the shortage, off Haiti, the ship’s evaporators–rather important pieces of equipment for a steam-powered vessel–failed.

And with no water, there’s precious little a medical team can offer.

According to Cmdr Mark Pimpo, USNS Sacagawea’s (T-AKE-2) military department officer in charge, the Bataan was in serious trouble:

“We also transferred more than 40,000 gallons of water to amphibious assault ship USS Bataan when both of the ship’s evaporators stopped functioning. Bataan was eventually able to get a tech rep onboard, but the water we provided made the difference,” Pimpo said.”

For the Bataan, a ship that entered the fleet in 1997, this sort of breakdown is not a good sign. But on the other hand, an evaporator failure is the sort of thing that’ll likely happen after a ship has been at sea for seven months, gets shut down…and then gets tasked to handle an unexpected contingency.

With short-notice surge deployments becoming the norm, the Navy has got to start doing some serious thinking about how it manages ship maintenance and surge availability. Are looming failures (or chronic engineering problems) getting reported up the chain-of-command during deployment? Or are they kinda close-held until after deployment when it all becomes some shipyard’s problem to deal with?

But just note…for the helpful T-AKE, this story is just another testament to how important the MSC’s T-AKE fleet has become (in such a short time, too)! These cheap, do-anything ships–with their residual fuel and liquid supply capabilities–are really pulling the Navy out of some potentially sticky situations…

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One little-noticed facet of America’s Haiti-bound expeditionary aid effort is the SS Petersburg (T-AOT 9101), a 45-year old vessel that is, right now, tied to a Bay Area pier, preparing to deploy. Why is this Ready Reserve Force asset, one that needs ten days to get going–and one of the furthest-flung pieces of equipment the United States has called into service for Haiti relief–getting activated? Isn’t it odd the military reached all the way to an Alameda pier for a tired old tanker–a tanker that makes only about 15 knots?

Well, it’s because the SS Petersburg is much more than a tanker! The SS Petersburg is a tanker built around an offshore petroleum discharge system (OPDS), and, as such, the ship is one of the only available government assets that can, while anchored offshore, receive and pump a lot of fuel ashore. OPDS is a key piece of expeditionary tech–those trucks, amphibious armored vehicles and generators have a hard time running without fuel.

In Haiti, there’s only a few weeks supply of fuel available–and we’re not done surveying Haiti’s fuel receiving terminals. Those terminals may be inaccessible for some time. Though accounts vary, the Wall Street Journal says the fuel terminals are damaged:

Two other Haitian terminals used to bring in fuel have also been heavily damaged, said Mr. Villard.

The U.S. military is also conducting an assessment of the port of Varreux, just to the north of Port-au-Prince’s main port, as a possible place to begin pumping fuel. Gen. Allyn said he expected to resume fuel deliveries there “in the very near future,” though the assessment will take another day or two.

Without receiving terminals, the fuel has to come in via road–from harbors elsewhere in Haiti or the Dominican Republic. But with the roads and weak harbor infrastructure likely to be clogged, the SS Petersburg may still be useful. From Navytimes:

“Within 48 hours of arrival on station, [Petersburg can begin] pumping 1.2 million gallons per day from up to four miles off shore and at water depths down to 200 feet. If the ship is moored within two nautical miles of the shore, two different products may be pumped simultaneously through two separate conduits,” according to information from MarAd.

Fuel supply is critical for any amphibious venture–and the advantage of having a means to receive refined fuel without need of port facilities is, these days, a tactical necessity.

Look to history–The advance from the World War II D-Day beachheads was supported by one of the first undersea pipelines, the aptly-named Operation PLUTO, or “Pipe-Lines Under the Ocean.” It was operational by August 1944, sparing space in the wrecked Cherbourg Harbor for other vital cargoes.

The SS Petersburg, when it arrives at Haiti, may help alleviate pressure on the feeble, crowded ports. It may allow those working to clear blocked harbor channels and open pier access to focus on insuring that traditional dry cargoes can get access to shore. (The Marines have an expeditionary bulk-liquid transfer system, but their ability to utilize that system at Haiti may be somewhat limited).

OPDS is not just for expeditionary use, either. For established bases like Guam, Diego Garcia or, oh, Ascension Island, damage to established fuel receiving infrastructure would rapidly degrade their inherent military value.

Interestingly enough, OPDS platforms only really emerged as a defense asset in the eighties and nineties:

“…the prototype SS Potomac (OPDS-1 built in 1957 converted to OPDS in 1985); SS American Osprey (OPDS-2 built 1958 converted 1988); SS Chesapeake (OPDS-3 built 1963 converted 1991); SS Petersburg (OPDS-4 built 1963 converted 1994); and, SS Mount Washington (OPDS-5 built 1963 converted 1995).”

What is rather odd is that the United States now only has three of these vessels–well, technically, two. The SS Petersburg’s sister, the Chesapeake (T-AOT 5084), is, after serving in the Gulf Region, a hulk, mouldering away in the National Defense Reserve Fleet over in Beaumont, Texas–in “logistic support” status. That means the poor SS Chesapeake is being stripped to keep the SS Petersburg operational (The SS Mount Washington is awaiting disposal in Suisun Bay).

The second, MV Vice Adm. K.R. Wheeler (T-AG 5001), is a brand-new charter vessel:

Wheeler’s improved capabilities include the ability to pump 500,000 gallons more fuel per day, operate in more difficult environmental conditions including surface currents of up to three knots and winds of up to 40 knots, and install pipe over an ocean bottom of rock and shell in addition to mud, sand and coral.

Wheeler also requires far fewer people to deploy its distribution system than its predecessors, which required about 200 people. Wheeler’s crew is made up of 24 civilians working for private companies under contract to MSC – 16 civilian mariners operate and navigate the ship, and eight systems operators, six of whom join the ship only during fueling evolutions, operate and deploy the distribution system.

But the Wheeler, well, she’s busy doing serving the national interest–someplace else. Part of the Guam-based Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadron Three, the ship was last seen operating off Korea (August-September 2009), training to provide refined fuel to fuel-hungry units ashore.

Here’s a great MSC video of the OPDS in action–a wonderful overview of what OPDS offers.

Given the importance of fuel for disasters and other contingencies, I’m rather shocked that the U.S. only maintains two of these vessels–and that nobody out there in the private sector seems to have made a similar system available for use. In any island, isolated region–or devastated urban area–fuel access is a force multiplier. And for any military service thinking about expeditionary ventures, a OPDS is critical–particularly when mission requirements demand an efficient means to engage and leverage civilian assets. These civ-mil “connectors” are too few and far between.

The OPDS is a critical and un-sung piece of the disaster-response tool kit. If American policymakers think missions like the Haiti disaster response will become a routine task for America’s “Global Force For Good,” then the U.S. needs a few more nifty offshore petroleum pumping stations like the MV Vice Adm. K.R. Wheeler.

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I wouldn’t know if I would call them lessons, so much as reminders.

There are a few interesting developments WRT Haiti that are sure to come up in the QDR Wars, here are a few at a quick glance.

The capabilities that are needed in Haiti are capabilities that are useful any time you need to get large numbers of forces and material ashore in a semi-permissive or non-permissive environment. As reported by NPR this morning – most of the forces promised late last week have yet to arrive – the major reason being the limited ability of the airport (primary APOD), and the condition of the PaP port facilities (primary SPOD).

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that up to 10,000 U.S. forces will be in Haiti and off its coast by today, but only a fraction of them will be on the ground.

The troops have been slow in arriving. Military officials blame the delay in part on Port-au-Prince’s small, overburdened airport. “It’s a huge traffic issue,” said Capt. John Kirby, spokesman for the military joint task force. He said the task force’s commander wants to ensure that flights with soldiers are not pre-empting the arrival of supplies.

Airdrops are of limited utility. Light lift helicopters of the C/U/SH-60 series (that is what they are, changing definitions to Medium lift are ignored by me) are not a cure-all; the shortfall in real Medium & Heavy lift (especially in the USN) borders on professional malpractice. LCS/JHSV and their ilk are nice tools to have in the box, but are also of only limited utility.

As the Army of Northern Virginia, The Potomac Flotilla, 8th & I Rod & Gun Club, and the Prince George’s Golf Club position their forces – watch for these arguments – they are good ones, and ones that are hard to dodge.

Eagle1 and SJS’ earlier posts bring up some other reminders. What are you seeing so far?



May 2009 photo of the USNS COMFORT, one of the U.S. Navy's two hospital ships. Photo by Jim Dolbow.
May 2009 photo of the USNS COMFORT, one of the U.S. Navy’s two hospital ships. Photo by Jim Dolbow.

Highlights from USNS Comfort Captain Aims To Bring Hope To Haiti:

The COMFORT is slated to leave Baltimore, MD by Saturday morning.

Expects to arrive in Haiti by 22 January.

Equipped for 250 beds and 4 operating rooms.

God Speed men and women of COMFORT!  I just wish it was faster than 17.5 knots!

Project Hope is recruiting volunteers to serve on this open-ended mission.  Click here to register.