Doing Better at Doing Well

Lessons from Department of Defense Disaster Relief Efforts in the Asia-Pacific Region
Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Stephanie Pezard, Laurel E. Miller, Jeffrey Engstrom, Abby Doll

RAND
2013
147pp.

 

US Air Force personnel deliver relief supplies...

US Air Force personnel deliver relief supplies to Burma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there is a unifying thread across the string of natural and human disasters that have torn across the Asia-Pacific region in the past eight years, it is that in each instance large chunks of the U.S. military dropped what they were doing at the time and placed their resources in the service of the governments trying to save lives, save property, recover the dead, and lay the groundwork for a speedy recovery.

There has to now not been an assessment of the effectiveness of that work, nor of the lessons learned. The RAND Corporation has taken on the task of making that assessment, and the results are now available in this concise volume. Taking into account four cases – that of Cyclone Nargis in Burma in 2008; the Padang earthquake in Indonesia in 2009, the monsoon floods in Pakistan in 2010, and the Tohuku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 – the study offers some thought-provoking conclusions.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that, left on its own to conduct operations, the US armed forces show a remarkable degree of improvisation and can-do spirit that often overcomes the lack of preparation, and provides the basis for the kind of flexibility that evolving disasters demand. What the study suggests is that not all of this improvisation is necessary, and that with the proper salting of expertise and experience, time and lives could be saved when lessons don’t have to be relearned by different units and personnel in similar situations.

The RAND experts also note that the military needs help playing nicely with others. In this, they echo the oft-repeated entreaties of grand strategist Thomas P.M. Barnett. While the military has learned to overcome its parochial service-first thinking at lower and lower levels of command, this process took over 60 years. Now, however, the military must start thinking not just “mulit-service,” but also “multi-agency” and “multi-national.” The military may be alone on the battlefield, but when the mission is saving people and property, they work best when they work smoothly with the UN, with the Red Cross, local governments, and the Department of State, to name a few.

To the credit of our people in uniform, that stuff is hard, and it is even hard when civilian agencies try to play nice. This is exactly what the study argues. It’s hard, but we have to do it, and better we start now training leaders and operators at every level of the armed forces how to work in an environment like this.

That conclusion seems intuitive to civilians. But to someone in the military – especially someone who has to train people in the face of tightening resources and limited time – it seems like another unfunded mandate from “experts” who have no idea of the challenges in the field. Cross-training a medic is easy. Cross-training a 19 year-old airman third class who specializes in operating a helicopter sonar how to conduct humanitarian tasks is a lot more time-consuming. And what should the military do? Spend more time getting that kid proficient at his highly technical job, given they’re only likely to have him for another couple of years? Or interrupt that time to teach him how to perform technical rescues?

The RAND study, to its credit, doesn’t try to overtask the military, but offers some simple and clever solutions to the problem.

This book is a great read, a must for disaster geeks (I admit to being one) and to anyone with an interest in how we can all get better at saving people after “the Big One.” And for those of us with an interest in China and soft power, it is a silent reflection on how far China must come before its aircraft carriers mean more than menace in Asia.

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