The more you read about the Haiti earthquake response the more you realise what a simply magnificent effort it was, Israeli and Iranian teams working side by side, the air and sea logistics effort (especially by the Coastguard, Military Sealift Command and USN/USMC) and medical assistance were all straight out of the top drawer. Jamaica, Cuba, Argentina, Mexico, South Korea and many more nations sent help.
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary and 17 Port and Maritime Regiment Royal Logistic Corps (those magnificent men and Mexeflote machines) also get an honourable mention.
But equally, lady luck and circumstance had a big part to play and so with the benefit of finest quality hindsight goggles could things have been done any better?
Supply lines were short, there were many adjacent countries that offered support (not least the Dominican Republic) and many of the responders were already in the area. It is often said that the more one practices the better ones luck becomes and this was absolutely true for the main body of military forces involved in the response, many having completed large scale exercises that practiced many of the capabilities used only the year before.
Despite this, the sheer scale of the response and numbers of participants created many command and control problems as identified by the RAND Analysis of the military response to the earthquake.
The demand for tactical information at a strategic level absorbed a great deal of time for little benefit, the long handled screwdriver as useless as ever, driving activity from adverse media coverage a common problem.
At its peak, there were 22,000 US military personnel engaged in Joint Task Force Haiti, each one requiring food and water in a food and water constrained environment.
The geography and time of year also ensured that sea conditions were benign, another place and another time may well have completely changed the ability of responders to get so much ashore so quickly.
Information and reconnaissance assets were invaluable but by Day 2, Google had made available high resolution satellite imagery which would form the basis of a number of innovative mapping and survey applications and arrangements with all responders reporting it as having a very positive impact on the response.
Despite the local GSM infrastructure being damaged the communication tool of choice was the Blackberry, being able to intgerate civilian communication systems was a key lesson as was the power of web services and SharePoint.
28 hours after the earthquake a small SOCOM team had air operations up and running at the airport, a feat which they received well deserved praise, from a normal 13 flight movements per day they enabled an average of 120 movements per day for three weeks with a peak of 150 movements per day.
The divers at the seaport operated in atrocious water conditions without appropriate protective equipment simply because none was available and the lack of joint training and equipment between the Army and Navy dive teams introduced unnecessary delays. Divers actually took daily doses of antibiotics and were constantly monitored for health problems.
All for the lack of proper PPE, this is not how a responsible military meets the welfare requirements of its personnel, no matter how noble the cause.
The importance of material handling equipment (especially the Kalmar RTCH), being able to clear pathways out of a port area and the ability to move supplies out of port areas were again reinforced.
Minor capabilities like building a RORO ramp out of compacted earth and hard-core had a huge impact on the ability to flow stores through the port.
The ISO container continued to prove it is much more efficient than break bulk, the ability of the SS Cape May and SS Cornhusker State to load break bulk into containers was invaluable in the reduction of crane and lighterage movements, moving half empty containers is a fools errand.
Whilst the JLOTS piers and lighters were invaluable for moving plant and vehicles to shore the amount of double handling required for palletised and containerised stores meant in reality, it was quite inefficient.
If it has wheels, JLOTS is very good, if it doesn’t, there is great deal of double and triple handling to be considered.
This is a minor criticism of JLOTS, the capability as a whole enabled a significant throughput of material.
The average terminal throughput pre earthquake was unclear, estimates ranged from 223 TEU equivalents per day to 100. In much of the subsequent reporting the lower figure seems the most common but although the higher figure comes from Lloyds Register the source of the lower remains unknown. Certainly, most of the comparison reports of JLOTS v existing seaport the lower figure is used. The target figure is also difficult to pin down, originally it was 400 TEU per day, then 200-250 and then it stopped being reported.
By the 23rd of January, 2 Navy Lighterage piers enabled a figure of 100 TEU equivalent per day. The addition of 5 Army LCU’s on the 25th January pushed this to 300 and 5 days later when they were also joined by 3 INLS systems that went up to 700 TEU per day equivalent.
And yet despite this impressive throughput it was very labour intensive and the figures above are potentials, the actuals were not as high.
The potential of the USNS Grasp was little understood, although she stayed the longest of any ship and offered invaluable salvage, survey and diver support she was initially characterised by SOUTHCOM as offering limited capability.
Survey and salvage are key enablers.
Delivering anything by helicopter, despite being very photogenic, is low capacity and inefficient, particularly for dense stores like water. Much was made of the water generation capability of amphibious warships and carriers but getting it to the point of need was another matter.
The large Army landing craft provided greater utility than the USMC and USN would like to admit.
Although the smaller ports around Port au Prince were in some cases undamaged they were arguably underutilised in the response, some of the JLOTS personnel and equipment might have been better used for this and indeed some of the civilian response did actually make use of these smaller ports.
What is abundantly clear is that ‘at scale’ there is no substitute for port facilities, going over the beach is great for the short term but simply cannot meet high volume demand.
Whilst many focus on the military response one could reasonably argue that it was a number of civilian governmental and commercial organisations that actually did the heavy lifting and received less credit than they should have.
Military Sealift Command, The Maritime Transportation System Recovery Unit, US Coast Guard, Transport Command, Crowley Marine, Titan Salvage, Seacor and Resolve Marine being notable examples. They were rolling quickly, often with only verbal agreements in place, Crowley even had a small floatplane fly in a survey team on the 18th of January, the Sea Express and Cape Express combined with the Marcajama and SS Cornhusker State and the survey and debris removal paved the way for the port to open with the Crowley barges.
The step change in throughput when the two barges arrived was noticeable (although the actual profile in reality would have been smoother); as soon as the second Crowley barge was in place JLOTS was only used for military traffic.
Prior to this step change, the salvage effort took several weeks of painstaking effort with cutting torches and cranes.
The first barge arrived on 13th of February after salvage and debris removal commenced on the 3rd of February. If this salvage operation had commenced earlier the barges may have been available sooner and the need for much of the JLOTS capability diminished, perhaps even if some military capabilities had been applied to the debris removal, explosive cutting charges and heavy lift helicopters for example.
That a single cheap and simple barge with a crawler crane could deliver more than double the assembled military capability throughput is an interesting observation.
They are not the same of course and this does not suggest that the US DoD should replace all that JLOTS and Seabasing capability with a couple of barges but it might cause some pause for thought.
The utility of such mooring barges is a lesson that seemingly, has been lost.
In the final analysis, the effectiveness of the response was not about systems or equipment, it was about people, often, a small number of people in key positions.
And that is a lesson that should never be forgotten.