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Haitian Humanitarian Relief in Perspective

  • Published
  • By Dan Knickrehm
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Historian
I have been trying for over two weeks now to place the events surrounding Pope's support of Operation Unified Response into a broader historic perspective of humanitarian relief. After hours of reading, researching and statistical analysis I finally realized the effort was somewhat futile. While many will jump to make comparisons with previous military missions or humanitarian efforts there is little meaningful way to make those comparisons. The nature of humanitarian relief efforts is that they are very different from one another. The situations surrounding the need for humanitarian aid influence the type and scope of response.

For example, if one wishes to compare current efforts in Haiti with the Berlin Airlift of the late 1940s it becomes immediately obvious that the differences in the two operations are dramatic. First, the Berlin airlift lasted for over a year and involved hundreds of aircraft flying routes that were less than 30 minutes long. Our support for Operation Unified Response is still on-going and the routes to Haiti are four hours or longer. There was significant lead-up time to the Berlin Airlift that did not occur with the earthquake in Haiti.

Knowing that there might be a need for airlift in Berlin meant that leaders were able to preposition assets to ensure a rapid response. The airports used in the Berlin Airlift had recently gone through WWII and were used to a high volume of activity that the airport in Haiti was not accustomed to. Also, the airport in Berlin was capable of holding many more aircraft on the ground at once than the airport in Haiti. After reviewing numerous accounts of the Berlin Airlift and crunching what numbers are available for that effort, about the only meaningful statistic that comes to light is that if we were to do the Berlin Airlift today under similar circumstances but with current technology and equipment, we would do it 190 percent more efficiently.

Even if we want to make comparisons with something more recent like our response to hurricane Katrina the differences outweigh similarities and make comparison difficult at best. To begin with, our response to hurricane Katrina was made without the need for coordination with a sovereign nation. Coordination between the federal and state governments is significantly easier than between nations like in the current situation. The U.S. ability to support relief efforts to victims of Katrina included movement of supplies and people by ground to an extent not available in Haiti. The differences between relief operations for flooding and earthquakes are significant as well. The equipment needed to get people off flooded rooftops as opposed to digging them out of building rubble requires a completely different set of skills and equipment.

If we consider that we moved elements of the 82d Airborne Division from Pope to Haiti and try to compare that effort to similar efforts the differences again prevent good comparison. Moving the 82d's rapid response force by air has been done before but under different circumstances. Moving the 82d for armed combat versus humanitarian support presents different tactical situations.

For instance, sending troops parachuting to the ground in a sovereign nation presents a clear visual image of invasion. While doing this in armed conflict has its advantages, sending hard-core combat troops parachuting from U.S. aircraft into a country suffering from devastation like Haiti is currently experiencing might cause undue anxiety to the local population. Haitians disoriented by the events taking place around them might not understand that the men dropping from the sky ini battle dress and carrying weapons are coming to help. Thus, movement of the 82nd Airborne Division by air and landing at the airport in Haiti makes sense but presents a different set of challenges than dropping them from aircraft.

The mission for the 82nd Abn. Div. also influenced our efforts. There is a significantly different set of equipment needed to send a force into combat versus sending them into a humanitarian relief effort. Tanks, APCs, artillery were all left behind. It could not have been easy to change the force structure of the Army's rapid response force from the familiar one of forceful armed insertion to peaceful humanitarian support. So, when we think about how long it took to get the first 82nd Abn. Div. troops off the ground from Pope (almost 30 hours) and how long it took to get the entire force there (nearly 10 days) we have to take into consideration that we weren't just dropping a familiar package onto a drop zone.

We were delivering a rapidly changing combination of men and equipment to an airport whose operability was, at least initially, questionable, whose traffic pattern was disrupted and whose security left much to be desired.

However, after all my research, contemplation and explanation there remains one important consistent characteristic of all humanitarian relief missions the U.S. has taken part in. As members of the Air Force, and Air Mobility Command specifically, our job is to project military might throughout the globe. When we take part in humanitarian relief, whether it is supplying beleaguered people in war-torn countries with food or evacuating victims from areas that have experienced natural disasters, we embody and project the compassion of the American people.