Friday, January 19, 2007

Inter-military cooperation and comparisons

“We have proved that the navy can be used as a diplomatic instrument in support of our political and geo-strategic objectives. Unlike the army and air force, the navy is a trans-national force, not circumscribed by a country’s international boundaries or airspace,” a senior officer of the Indian Navy.

India has a vast landmass of nearly 3 million square kilometers, but its Search and Rescue Region (SRR) is 50% bigger——this means that Indian forces are responsible for the hundreds of thousands of boats, ships, and aircraft spread across 4.6 million square kilometers of ocean and land. Additionally India provides satellite-based alerting services to a host of countries around the Indian Ocean region, which are (from west to east) Tanzania, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Apart from these India has defense agreements and holds joint military exercise with other countries and foreign navies in the region.

India’s record in the region

The Indian Navy and Coast Guard have been engaged in operations against the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and human beings (Operation Tasha in its south and off the northern coast of Sri Lanka, and Operation Swan on the western coast of India). Similar duties, with the additional task of anti-piracy operations, are conducted by the unified Andaman and Nicobar Command in the east. The navy, in support of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, provided escort and security services to high-value American shipping passing through the Malacca Straits all through 2002 (Operation Sagittarius). In May 2003 following heavy rain and flooding in southern Sri Lanka, the Indian Armed Forces were sent to assist in rescue and relief.

Earlier the Indian Armed Forces distinguished themselves in defeating and capturing the PLOTE rebels that tried to overthrow the Maldives Government in 1987 (Operation Cactus). The Indian Navy rescued the hijacked ship, the Alondra Rainbow, and provided seafront security of Maputo for the second African Union summit.

The Government of India’s (GOI) efforts were initially directed towards its Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Operation Sea Waves), due to a mistaken belief that it was a localized disaster caused by an earthquake and the rising of the sea bed. Later when the Tsunami waves lashed the mainland, a separate operation was undertaken for the affected regions on the Indian peninsula (Operation Madad). Subsequent operations were launched on request from the neighboring countries that had suffered the destructive force of the Tsunami waves.

Before the sun set on the tragic day, Indian aircraft had already landed with supplies in the Tsunami-affected countries and Indian ships and personnel had set sail to provide relief to the stricken populace. In addition India announced monetary aid to the tune of 25 million dollars for all the afflicted nations.

Operation Rainbow

Sri Lanka did not have a contingency disaster plan to deal with the aftermath of the Tsunami, where more than 30,000 lives were lost. Due to the long-running civil war search and rescue duties devolved on the military by default. However the government subsequently created ad-hoc bodies like the TAFRER (Task Force for Rescue and Relief), TAFLOL (Logistics, Law, and Order), and the TAFREN (Rebuild the Nation).

The military suffered from a lack of SAR-trained pilots, a lack of winches, no droppable stock of relief material, no mobile hospitals, and no electronic SAR capability. Despite these shortcomings the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) helicopters immediately took off on search and rescue while the fixed-wing aircraft carried out damage assessment. On the ground jungle-rescue units of the Sri Lankan Army were sent to remote villages for relief work. The disruption of communication links was overcome on the 27th by the establishment of mobile radio hams, which enabled the government to get a grip on the situation. Sri Lanka eventually deployed 12 vessels, 13 helicopters, and 5 aircraft for relief operations.

Before this on the 26th, the Sri Lankan government had appealed to India for aid——the GOI sanctioned Operation Rainbow, to be coordinated by the Integrated Defense Staff (IDS), for assistance to Sri Lanka at 0400 hours Indian Standard Time. Within one hour a naval Dornier aircraft landed in Colombo with a medical team and supplies. An Islander aircraft was also stationed at Colombo and along with the Dornier was placed at the services of the Sri Lankan government. Through the duration of Op Rainbow these two aircraft ferried SLAF personnel and relief material, and evacuated stranded people from the affected areas.

The IAF, which had been engaged in operations from the very moment the Tsunami hit, flew in six medium-lift Mi-17 and Mi-8 helicopter. These carried out two to three sorties daily in coordination with the SLAF and SLA officers. A heavy-lift IL-76 aircraft flew in several tonnes of supplies on the 28th December; on the 31st another IL-76 landed an entire army field hospital from Kochi, complete with 9 medical officers. This field hospital began work with the Sri Lankan Army Military Engineering Regiment in Embilipitiya near Hambantota (and later in Matara district). All together the IAF carried out 340 sorties during Op Rainbow and effectively formed an air bridge between India and Sri Lanka.

The main relief operations were conducted from the sea (a total of 135 ship days in operations) and these can be studied best by looking at individual naval platforms, from which naval and army teams carried out relief work:

· INS Sharda: the offshore patrol vessel arrived at Galle harbor on the 27th December and established contact with the Sri Lankan Navy Detachment. The latter provided barges for unloading relief supplies from the Sharda. An inflatable boat with divers and a helicopter was launched for an immediate recce of the port, while the medical team set up a camp on shore. Clearing of debris, retrieval of bodies, and sounding of the harbor began in tandem with the Survey Vessel INS Sutlej. By the 29th the INS Sharda delivered relief material to Boosa, 10 nm (nautical miles) from Galle. Subsequently a diving team from the Sharda was attached to the INS Sutlej while the offshore patrol vessel returned to its home port of Kochi. When it returned to Galle on 12th January, the port had been made operational by the Indian Navy——INS Sharda took over coordination of relief work while the other vessels returned to home ports. In coordination with an army team debris was cleared from Televatha and a relief camp was set up there. Technical teams from the vessel worked with the local Fisheries Department to repair boats, nets and engines. A medical officer from the ship attended to patients at the Closenberg camp. Subsequently INS Taragiri took up coordination of relief work at Galle.

· INS Sutlej: the survey vessel arrived off Galle on the 28th December and began sounding work on the harbor and entrance channel. In coordination with the INS Sharda medical camps were conducted at Galle, Kogalla, and Makkuluja, where 237 patients were treated. Diving teams on four inflatable crafts detected four boats and two mechanized trawlers sunk near the jetty. The sunken boats were cleared by the Indian sailors while the trawlers were retrieved using a crane by the harbor authorities. On the 1st January the survey vessel INS Sarvekshak and the hospital ship INS Jamuna, loaded with supplies, medical teams, and a composite army team of 81 personnel, arrived at Galle while the INS Sharda returned to Kochi. On the same day the Indian High Commissioner and a team of reporters from CNN visited the ship. On the 2nd January the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka visited Galle——the commanders of the three Indian ships briefed the visiting dignitary on the relief operations. Chetak helicopters from the three ships also ferried medical stores and relief material to the Sri Lankan Naval Station of Boosa. On the 4th January Galle harbor was made fully operational by the Indian Navy——the Indian High Commissioner handed over the harbor tracings to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister. On the 6th January INS Sutlej moved to Colombo for survey work of the harbor, which was successfully completed on the 10th and the harbor tracings were handed over to the Sri Lankan authorities. The INS Sutlej finally de-inducted medical teams from Colombo and returned to home port towards the end of January.

· INS Sandhayak: the survey vessel arrived at Trincomalee on the 27th and handed over relief material to the Sri Lankan Navy. Boats from the INS Sandhayak began survey of the harbor and channel for sunken and floating obstruction. On the 29th the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and other dignitaries visited the Indian Navy ships at Trincomalee for a briefing on relief operations. Subsequently amphibious vessels of the Indian Navy relieved the INS Sandhayak, which returned to Chennai——it was loaded with provisions and personnel and deployed for Op Sea Waves at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

· INS Sukanya: the offshore patrol vessel arrived at Trincomalee on the 27th and handed over relief material to the district authorities. One medical team was deployed at the local hospital while over 500 people were treated at Gopalpuram, Salli, Kuchuveli, and Mutur. On the 29th Sri Lankan dignitaries and officials from the armed forces, civil administration, and police visited the ships at Trincomalee and were briefed on relief operations. Subsequently INS Sukanya was relieved by amphibious vessels of the Indian Navy.

· INS Ghorpad: originally engaged in Op Madad on the Indian peninsula, the landing ship tank (LST) was re-deployed to Trincomalee. The medical team on board treated 300 patients at Mutur and distributed hygiene chemicals to prevent the outbreak of water-borne diseases. The amphibious vessel disembarked nearly 120-tonnes of relief material, aided in the desalination of fresh-water wells, and repaired the government hospital at Kochuveli where approximately 820 patients were treated. Subsequent relief operations at Trincomalee were coordinated by the hospital ship INS Jamuna.

· INS Kirch: originally engaged in Op Madad, the corvette was re-deployed to Trincomalee where it delivered portable gensets, electric cable, fresh packaged water, rugs, and blankets to the district authorities and Sri Lankan Navy. A team of 3 officers and 25 sailors was deployed to the Sri Lankan Naval Station of Nilaveli. A medical team remained deployed at Kinniya until INS Jamuna took over relief operations in the Trincomalee district.

· LCU 33: the landing craft was sent to Trincomalee with INS Ghorpad and INS Kirch to relieve the INS Sandhayak and INS Sukanya. The amphibious vessel unloaded 11.5-tonnes of relief material. A medical team from the LCU 33, along with personnel from INS Kirch, remained deployed at Kinniya until INS Jamuna took over relief operations.

· INS Sarvekshak: the survey vessel with a composite army team (engineers, signals, and medical corps) of 81 personnel arrived at Galle on the 1st January. The army team was deployed at the Sri Lankan naval Station of Boosa. The INS Sarvekshak joined in harbor-clearance operations and opened medical camps at Galle——the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka was briefed on relief operations on a visit to the ship on 2nd January. The composite army team was later re-deployed at the Sri Lankan Naval Station Dakshin, where they cleared four wells, began construction work on a bridge, and restored electric power in two government buildings. A naval team from Sarvekshak repaired fishing boat engines——on 8th January a medical team treated 175 patients at Closenberg camp. Subsequently the survey vessel moved to Kankesanturai harbor near Colombo where it conducted survey operations and handed over the maritime charts to the Northern Area Commander of the Sri Lankan Navy.

· INS Jamuna: the survey vessel was converted into a hospital ship and arrived at Galle on the 1st January. It provided assistance at the various medical camps in the district and paid host to visiting dignitaries——subsequently the INS Jamuna was re-deployed to Trincomalee district. Mobile medical teams from the ship treated 376 patients at Sally, Sambaltheevu Vellur, and Kovil. It supplied portable gensets for the government hospital at Kochuveli while a medical team visited the Kalmuni area where no relief had reached till then. The INS Jamuna remained deployed at Trincomalee where it ran medical camps and led other relief operations. On the 31st all Indian vessels were ordered to return to home ports.

· INS Aditya: the tanker vessel was initially engaged in Op Castor (see below) but on 2nd January it arrived at Colombo and disembarked 1000-kgs of medicines, 6 medical officers, and 11 medical assistants. A combined team of six medical officers (3 army, 2 air force, and 1 navy) were deployed at Batticoloa with 12 medical assistants. INS Aditya also carried out logistics operations in support of the other vessels.

· CGS Samar: the coast guard vessel arrived at Colombo on 2nd January and handed over relief material to the Sri Lankan Health Minister. The CGS Samar carried a helicopter on board and later helped in the de-induction army medical teams from Colombo.

· INS Nirdeshak: this survey vessel of the Western Naval Command was converted into a hospital ship and was initially deployed for Op Sea Waves in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Subsequently it was tasked to join INS Nirupak at Meulaboh for Op Gambhir, but was diverted instead to Colombo. INS Nirdeshak unloaded 40-tonnes of relief material and 4-tonnes of medical stores at Colombo——another 70-tonnes of supplies were disembarked at Ampara.

· INS Taragiri: this vessel relieved the other Indian Navy ships at Galle and directed relief operations till the end of January. A medical team from the ship examined 234 patients at the Closenberg camp. The on-board helicopter carried out an aerial recce and discovered displaced families at Dudenduva; relief material from the ship and a medical team were sent to that location. Another team from INS Taragiri augmented the army personnel engaged in building a camp site at Televetha, and also carried out preparatory work for another camp site at Kahawe. Engineering teams repaired the engines of two trawlers and also restored over 30 fresh-water wells. The INS Taragiri was de-inducted from Op Rainbow towards the end of January when all vessels were ordered to return to home ports.

Operation Castor

The nation of Maldives is a chain of 1000 big and small islands, many of them no higher than one meter from sea level. There was no dedicated agency to deal with disaster management, although post-Tsunami the government created an ad-hoc inter-ministerial National Disaster Management Center. On the 26th the Maldives Coast Guard set out on search and rescue; on the same day the government appealed to old friend India for aid. In the same meeting that sanctioned Op Rainbow for Sri Lanka a separate operation was also directed for the Maldives and was given the name Castor.

Within one hour of being notified three naval ships, loaded with supplies and personnel of the Western Command, set off from Mumbai. One Dornier aircraft of the Coast Guard, two Avro aircraft of the IAF, and one more Dornier landed in Male on the 27th morning with 30-tonnes of supplies. Coordinating with the Indian Embassy these four aircraft were placed at the services of the Maldives government, and immediately engaged in search and rescue and damage assessment. The aircraft were used for inter-island movement and were tested in using small landing strips; their main tasks were evacuation of casualties, deployment of medical teams, and landing of food, water, and supplies. The IAF also kept an IL-76 on standby for transport of emergency supplies——altogether the aircraft conducted 155 sorties and returned to India on the 31st of January.

The naval platforms engaged in the Maldives were:

  • INS Mysore: a destroyer with two helicopters, medical and diving teams on board embarked from Mumbai and reached Male at 0700h on the 28th. After unloading supplies and meeting with the Maldives officials, INS Mysore moved to Vilufushi and Madufushi Islands, providing medical aid to over 100 people, repairing generators and restoring electricity, and providing a portable communications set. In subsequent days the destroyer provided similar aid at the islands of Gan, Kalhaidoo, Mundoo, Dhabidoo, Ishdoo, and Maabihdoo. On these islands relief material was landed by helicopter sorties and 85 people were given medical aid. INS Mysore returned to Male on the 4th of January——in a coordination meeting with the Indian High Commission and Maldives authorities it was decided that the naval ships had successfully completed relief operations, and since no further tasks were at hand the vessels left Male that evening.
  • INS Udaygiri: a frigate with one helicopter, medical and diving teams on board embarked from Mumbai and reached Male on the 29th. INS Udaygiri unloaded nearly 8-tonnes of relief material at Male and moved to Villingilli Island——an aerial recce by helicopter revealed widespread damage including 15 casualties. Teams from the ship unloaded relief material and provided medical aid to the inhabitants. At Kolhuvaaryaafushi Island the frigate established community kitchens, decontaminated the fresh water storage, unloaded medical stores (also supplied to the nearby island of Mulah Kandu) and built four toilets. At Guraidhookandu Island 900-kgs of rice and 250-kgs of sugar were unloaded.
  • INS Aditya: a tanker loaded with 20-tonnes of relief material, 6000 fresh water pouches, 1000-tonnes of fresh water, and one helicopter, embarked from Mumbai and reached Male on the 29th. The greater amount of time was spent in unloading supplies, after which INS Aditya joined the other vessels in visiting numerous islands and sending its medical teams on shore. On the 1st January INS Aditya embarked from Male for Kochi——after loading on fuel and provisions it was subsequently engaged for Op Rainbow in Sri Lanka.
  • CGS Sagar: while the Indian Navy ships were leaving Male, the Coast Guard vessel Sagar was deployed to the Maldives with fresh relief material. Along with the Coast Guard’s Dornier aircraft, and the IAF’s Avros, CGS Sagar remained deployed in Maldives for relief operations at various islands til the 17th of January.
  • CGS Vigraha: on the 17th this Coast Guard vessel disembarked additional relief material at Male military anchorage and relieved CGS Sagar of its duties. On the same day CGS Vigraha unloaded 10-tonnes of relief material at Kolhamandulu Atoll. It remained on call for Op Castor till the end of January when all Indian vessels were ordered to return to home ports.

Operation Gambhir

Indonesia’s disaster management infrastructure and the dominant role of the armed forces in rescue and relief were similar to other affected nations, but will be described later. Due to the uprooting of infrastructure and communication links, and the death of many local government officials in the tragedy, information about the full extent of the devastation in Aceh province did not reach the central government till a few days later.

India has good relations with Indonesia, with military-to-military contacts, and increasing frequency of joint exercises. While helping the US in Op Sagittarius through the Malacca Straits, India made it clear to Indonesia that it had no intention of policing or patrolling the Malacca Straits; a very sensitive issue for the island nation. Request for aid to the GOI was received on the 28th and Operation Gambhir (a Hindi word translating to “Grim”, which was an apt description of the situation in Aceh) was sanctioned. At this time the Indian Armed Forces were fully engaged in no less than four operational areas separated by a 1000 kilometers.

The INS Khukri, a missile corvette then engaged in Op Madad on the eastern Indian coast was refitted for Op Gambhir, and was loaded with 40-tonnes of relief material. The survey ship INS Nirupak was converted into a hospital ship, with a capacity of 40 beds, 4 ICU units, x-ray and pathological facilities, and qualified personnel for carrying out surgery on-board.

These two ships set off on the 30th of December and reached the Indonesia coast on the 4th of January. The Indian Ambassador was brought on board by Chetak helicopter to iron out procedures in a coordination meeting, and the next day the ships began operations off the port of Meulaboh. IAF aircraft also landed supplies at the eastern coast airfield of Medan.

Medical supplies and personnel from the INS Nirupak were disembarked by Chetak helicopter and a medical camp was set up at a mosque in Meulaboh town. Subsequently this camp was shifted to a premises provided by the Indonesian military.

Attending the ASEAN summit on the Tsunami disaster at Jakarta (January 6), India’s then external affairs minister K Natwar Singh assured states along the Indian Ocean rim and South-East Asia that New Delhi would be “happy to place the strengths of the Indian Navy for use in humanitarian relief in the region.”

Approximately 200 patients were treated at the camp on the 6th of January——on the 9th the commanding officers of the two ships held a meeting with the deputy Indonesian Task Force Commander. As requested by the Indonesian medical authorities facilities for blood grouping, x-ray, screening and bleeding were established on the 12th.

Cases of surgery were conducted on the INS Nirupak. Three senior Indonesian surgeons visited the ship to meet the patients and review the facilities on board.

The INS Khukri lay anchored off the coast and disembarked its stores through a large boat from the Indonesian Naval Ship Kambai——around 20-tonnes of material were sent ashore by the 6th. After a meeting between the two Indian commanders, the Indian defense attaché, and Indonesian naval authorities, a Landing Craft – Vehicles and Personnel (LCVP) was used to land the remainder of the relief material on shore.

Another hospital ship, the INS Nirdeshak, was scheduled to join Op Gambhir but was diverted instead for Op Rainbow in Sri Lanka. All its relief material and medical stores, destined for Indonesia, were used up in Sri Lanka——subsequently the INS Khukri returned to India mid-January and brought back more relief material and medical supplies to Meulaboh.

All together 40-tonnes of relief supplies were delivered under Op Gambhir and over 1700 patients were treated in the medical camp and on-board the INS Nirupak. By the 31st of January both ships returned home to India.

ASEAN nations

  • Malaysia: Out of the affected countries in the ASEAN region, Malaysia was the first to repair its own losses and provide relief to its neighbors. The landmass of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which bore the brunt of the Tsunami waves, shielded most of Malaysia except the island of Penang where 52 lives were lost. After deploying in local search and rescue for the first two days, the Malaysian armed forces began assisting neighboring Indonesia in relief work. 2 C-130 aircraft of the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) were sent to the airfield of Medan on the 28th of December. These were followed by one CN-235 on the 30th and two SK-61As on the 31st——around 300 army troops were disembarked and began rescue and relief work. One vessel of the Royal Malaysian Navy was also deployed off the Indonesian coast. Malaysia has opposed US initiatives to patrol the Malacca Straits under the Maritime Security Initiative and has asked it to respect local sovereignty——in these post-Tsunami operations Malaysia naturally did not open its bases for the US military but preferred to work through the agencies of the United Nations. On the 6th of January 2005, the United Nations Joint Operations Center (UNJOC) was established at the air base of Subang for humanitarian missions to Aceh and Medan. With its adequate parking space, refueling facilities, and competent ground handlers, the Subang Air Base was ideally located close to the affected region for relief operations. The RMAF coordinated air traffic and liased with various aid agencies for the smooth flow of air operations.
  • Thailand: the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM) is the agency tasked with relief operations——on the 26th December it approved emergency funds of 50 million Baht for each of the six affected provinces. The DDPM also directed the southern navy commander to provide aircraft and helicopters for rescue and relief operations. But since this department had few personnel and limited assets for dealing with the widespread devastation, the then Thai government set up an ad-hoc Tsunami Disaster Task Force on the 27th with one minister heading operations in each province. But as in other nations it were the Thai armed forces that came to dominate relief operations——military units first restored communications links in the affected provinces. The Royal Thai Navy directed its Third Fleet stationed at Phuket, the Phang-Nga Naval Base, and the Air and Coastal Defence Command to send ships and aircraft for search and rescue on Surin and Phra Thong Islands. Over 100 dead bodies were recovered and 2900 people saved——Navy personnel on foot searched for survivors on the Khao Lak beach at Phang-Nga. A total of 7 ships, including the aircraft carrier Chakri Naruebet, were deployed in these operations. The Coast Guard was the first to reach Phi Phi Island and rescue tourists while providing transport facilities for relief workers and supplies. Most of the over 5000 victims of the Tsunami waves were fishermen, tourists, and immigrant laborers from Myanmar. The Royal Thai Army worked inland, recovering and disposing off dead bodies and using its Armored Personnel Carriers to dredge up submerged vehicles. The Royal Thai Air Force flew sorties on five C-130 aircraft between Bangkok and Phuket, flying in supplies and personnel and evacuating affected people. Like India, Thailand also refused international aid or the direct services of foreign agencies. But it opened its Utapao base for use by long-term ally, the United States.
  • Singapore: the Singapore military carried out Operation Flying Eagle from the 30th of December by dispatching C-130 aircraft with supplies, equipment, and medical and engineering teams. Initially their effort was directed towards Thailand but subsequently the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) established a base at the Indonesian airfield of Medan. The amphibious vessels (Landing Ship Tanks) the RSS Endurance and the RSS Persistence, with a complement of helicopters and naval teams, were also deployed later. On the 10th of January the RSAF provided a mobile communications tower for controlling air traffic at Banda Aceh while the Republic of Singapore Navy subsequently built a permanent jetty at the Indonesian port of Meulaboh for the use of larger ships. Singapore’s own bases were opened for use by the US military.
  • Indonesia: the majority of lives lost, the most widespread uprooting of infrastructure, and the greatest energy that the Tsunami unleashed, were all in Indonesia. International aid was eventually concentrated on its Aceh province——the local disaster management agency is the National Disaster Management Board (BAKORNAS) with subordinate boards at the provincial and district levels. But responsibility for handling the post-Tsunami relief work was given to the newly created Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR). Here again the first to engage in rescue and relief work were the armed forces——the Indonesia national army (TNI) and paramilitary forces (BRIMOB) were already present in large numbers to fight the long-running insurgency by the GAM in Aceh. The local government was dissolved by the Tsunami with the death of many government officials and the destruction of transport and communication links. For this reason it took time for the full extent of the damage to be revealed to the Indonesian government and subsequently to the world——for this reason international aid for the affected countries came last to Indonesia. A disaster response command center and an emergency operations center was established at Jakarta and Medan by January to regulate the flow of increased air traffic——eventually points of access to Aceh were established at the three nodes of Banda Aceh, Medan, and Meulaboh . The TNI assumed responsibilities for distributing relief material, forbade foreign troops from operating for more than a day in relief operations, forbade NGOs from venturing on their own in Aceh, and also banned foreign troops from carrying weapons while distributing relief material. The government was peeved at the necessity of accepting international aid and later set a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Indonesia——troops of ASEAN nations were permitted to continue working for some more time. TNI Special Forces were parachuted to remote locations with relief materials, and at every place the TNI provided escorts for conducting foreign aid to the affected populace. The Indonesian Navy deployed 28 vessels for carrying relief material and troops all around the coast of Aceh while the air force carried out regular casualty evacuation and recce sorties in 15 aircraft and 2 helicopters.

Formation of the Tsunami core group

The US military has the largest military presence in the region, with an awesome capacity for long-range sealift and airlift. Like the other militaries it too has search and rescue responsibilities, close alliances with some regional powers, and regular military exercises with others. All US military assets in the Pacific and Indian Oceans come under the joint Pacific Command (PACOM) headquartered in Hawaii.

On receipt of information on the earthquake and subsequent Tsunami in the Indian Ocean the Operations Planning Team at PACOM got to work. Disaster Relief Assessment Teams (DRAT) were sent to Thailand, Sri Lanka, (on the 29th) and subsequently Indonesia (on the 30th). PACOM was in touch with US Embassies and senior military officers in the affected countries——back in the US the government announced relief measures to be coordinated by an inter-agency group and named the combined civil-military task Operation Unified Assistance.

The PACOM chose Utapao in the Gulf of Thailand as its base of operations——all air, army, and naval assets assembling at Utapao came under a new headquarters, the Combined Support Force (CSF)-536 headed by a Marine Corps General. Working under CSF-536 were Combined Support Groups (CSG), headed by one-star generals, at Phuket in Thailand, Galle in Sri Lanka, and Medan in Indonesia. Another forward base was later established at Banda Aceh, Indonesia. These CSGs worked in coordination with national governments, the local military, and civilian US and UN agencies, which came in later.

6 C-130 cargo planes, 9 PC-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, 3 KC-135 refueling aircraft, and almost ninety helicopters were deployed for Op Unified Assistance. These helped transport US army and marine assets in Japan, Guam, and South Korea to Utapao. The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and support vessels, jointly termed the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, then anchored at Hong Kong were dispatched to the affected region (began operations on 2nd January). The USS Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group (began operations on 7th January) was also sent to the Malacca Straits from Guam——initially directed to Sri Lanka.

By this time India was in the process of completing Op Castor in Maldives and was leading Op Rainbow in Sri Lanka, in coordination with the Sri Lankan military. On December 29th the US government proposed the formation of a “Tsunami Core Group” comprising Japan, Australia, India, and the US to lead relief operations for this global tragedy.

Australia also responded quickly to the tragedy by dispatching 6 C-130 and one Boeing 707 aircraft, and 1000 Australian Defense Forces (ADF) personnel to Indonesia. Australia’s primary aid was to Indonesia as per bilateral agreement, and was termed Operation Sumatra Assist. The amphibious vessel HMAS Kanimbla could only reach the affected region by the middle of January, since it started its journey all the way from Sydney on Australia’s east coast (31st December) and made a stop at Darwin on the north coast (8th January).

Japan responded to the Tsunami tragedy by announcing monetary aid and readying its self-defense forces for relief work. Coordination teams were placed alongside US forces at Utapao in what turned out to be Japan’s largest overseas military operation since World War II. Assets deployed included 2 C-130 aircraft, 2 ships, 1 Landing Platform Dock (LPD), 5 helicopters, and over 800 personnel. Although the Indonesian government appealed for aid to Japan on the 3rd January, these Japanese military assets only reached the region by the 27th of that month.

So the activities of the Tsunami core group were essentially a coordination between two separate operational areas——Indonesia under US leadership and Sri Lanka-Maldives under Indian leadership.

The core group foreign ministers and secretaries held daily teleconferences to discuss requirements and other means of cooperation. But since these individuals lacked operational knowledge and real-time information, these meetings were ended and on the ground military-to-military cooperation took over with the coordination in the movement of military assets. The USS Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group, originally meant for relief operations in Sri Lanka, was deployed in Indonesia.

India conveyed the requirement of clean drinking water in Sri Lanka, to which the US responded by air-lifting 30,000 water pouches. Australia provided specialized trauma-relief services to orphans in the affected region (India Today Jan 17, 2005 “Disaster Diplomacy”). The formation of the core group allowed each country to best deploy its military assets and direct its financial aid——it helped to create a framework for relief covering the entire affected region. Subsequently the European Union, Canada, and the United Nations’ agencies also became part of the core group and used the deployed military assets for their relief work.

In Sri Lanka Indian aircraft transported officials of the UNDP and UNDAC, NGO groups, and journalists, between different affected areas. In Indonesia US aircraft provided the same aid to UN officials and NGOs. The work done by these military forces in the crucial first week of operations could not have been carried out by the United Nations alone due to the sheer scale of the disaster. But once the initial work on repairing infrastructure, restoring communication links, and providing emergency relief and medical aid was completed, the Core Group was wound up (Jan 5). The UN then took up the more long-term work of rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Other countries

Almost 43 nations contributed either military assets, or rescue and relief teams, or financial aid, to the affected regions. The countries deploying military assets were:

  • France: three ships, two C-160 aircraft, and four helicopters.
  • South Korea: one C-130 and two LSTs.
  • Norway: two C-130s.
  • Bangladesh: two ships, two C-130s, and three helicopters.
  • Pakistan: four ships and two C-130s.
  • Germany: one hospital ship and two helicopters.
  • UK: three ships and two helicopters.
  • Brunei: one aircraft and two helicopters.
  • Austria: one C-130.
  • Russia: set up a field hospital by flying in material and personnel in several IL-76 flights. Later donated said hospital to Indonesia.
  • Switzerland: three helicopters.
  • Bahrain: field hospital.
  • New Zealand: one aircraft and helicopters in conjunction with Australian forces.
  • Denmark: field hospital.

Many of these countries were geographically removed from the affected region and took time to transport their military assets. Many were deployed only for a period of a few weeks or even less.

By contrast US and Indian military assets were engaged in operations from the very start and remained deployed in their respective operational areas for an entire month. To put matters in perspective, India while deploying military assets in its own affected regions managed to place more than 12 aircraft, 30 helicopters, and 20 ships for relief operations overseas. In the matter of monetary aid, apart from actual money outlined for the affected countries, the US, India, and other countries spent large amounts on the operational costs of their military assets (ships, aircraft, helicopters), which is not reflected in the aid figures.




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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Military response and inter-service cooperation

"Give us a full-scale war any day but spare us this horror. I hovered over the water and saw my entire family being washed away," a young IAF pilot at the Car Nicobar base.

The post-Tsunami rescue and relief efforts were the largest peacetime operations ever undertaken by the Indian Armed Forces. For an oceanic disaster that spanned international boundaries and territorial waters it was natural for the Indian Navy to take the lead role in rescue and relief operations.

But it was the Indian Air Force (IAF), which first reported the earthquake and began search and rescue operations in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. And tragically it were the officers and men of the IAF who first suffered the destructive force of the Tsunami. Early morning on the 26th, which just happened to be a Sunday when most personnel were asleep or with their families on the Car Nicobar air force station, the tiny island was crushed under the monstrous Tsunami.

In life-threatening moments human beings think first of their own and their families’ safety. The waves swallowed 116 personnel and their families——some airmen had the mixed fate of surviving without being able to save their loved ones. But swallowing their grief they joined the others in rescue efforts, which were launched within minutes on the base. While searching for and setting up survivors in temporary shelters, the airmen also had to secure their aircraft and asses the damage on the airfield, part of which was submerged underwater.

In addition the control tower was destroyed and the pilots had to maintain communication links by setting up a mobile ATC for directing the helicopter and dornier sorties. Pilots dressed in shorts and T-shirts flew non-stop from the morning till late in the night without being able to change or refresh themselves——it was due to their heroic efforts that hundreds of lives were saved and marooned people rescued. The personnel on the ground built temporary shelters and arranged for the preparation of food and supply of uncontaminated water.

Operation Sea Waves

These pilots also sent May Day calls from the HF radios on their aircrafts to the Tambaram Air Base on the mainland at Chennai. The personnel at Car Nicobar, made up of detachments from the IAF’s helicopter (Mi-17, Mi-8) and fixed-wing (Dornier) units came under the unified Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). Or to put it more accurately they formed part of the air forces component, tri-services command at A&N.

But in this tri-service unified command the military assets (ships, planes, vehicles) and bases are property of the individual service. The IAF high command relayed the message to the government and without awaiting a response started relief operations to Car Nicobar (Carnic for short). Within two hours a couple of An-32 aircraft were dispatched from the Southern Air Command HQ——aircraft from other commands were put on readiness alert. The air forces component commander of the ANC, from Port Blair in the northern island chain of the Andaman, flew in a Dornier aircraft to make a first-hand assessment of the damage.

Back in New Delhi the service chiefs had met in the NCMC at noon and had decided that the relief operation for the A&N would be named “Sea Waves” and would be coordinated by the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) HQ. By this time the IAF was sending in heavy lift aircraft like the IL-76 and IL-78, its vast fleet of helicopters, and other aircraft to boost its earlier efforts. The Eastern Naval Command (ENC) and units of the Indian Army now joined this operation——coordination between the ANC, the IDS, and the three services was carried out smoothly.

The relief material at first came from within the stores of the armed forces and included food, medicines, fresh water provisions, tents, blankets, satellite communication sets, generators, and water purification plants. Subsequently relief material from the civil administration was disbursed by the armed forces. The Indian Navy requisitioned two merchant ships (MV Yerawa and MV Kamorta) from the Shipping Corporation of India for transporting additional relief material.

· IAF and nature’s challenge: “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, Chennai, Chennai Chennai this is Victor Juliet Golf on ground at Carnicobar. Carnicobar hit by a severe earthquake and flooding of the island by tidal waves. Island is sinking, request immediate rescue and relief”, was the alarming message flashed by HF radio on the Dornier aircraft from Carnic at 0730h. The heroic efforts of the pilots and airmen at Carnic in saving lives, maintaining communications, and preserving military assets (which would prove crucial in rescue and relief efforts later) were mostly unsung stories that can now be read here. The challenge for the IAF was to begin airlift operations and maintain an air bridge (from the mainland to ANC and even within the islands) with damaged and non-existent infrastructure in the southern island chain of Nicobar. In fact the word island, which may give a mental image of a small territory, is a misnomer——the land+maritime area of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago is actually bigger than most Indian states!

A round trip from and to the mainland took eleven hours, while helicopter sorties between islands took five to six hours. Each day from the 26th onwards the IAF flew in heavy-lift IL-76 and IL-78 aircraft loaded with relief material and, in the same trip, flew out evacuees. On average seven IL-76, two IL-78, fifteen medium-lift An-32, and four Avros and Dorniers each, were engaged in operations. The existing helicopter fleet on the islands was boosted by an additional five helicopters flown in by 2nd January——these were flown in from the eastern route hopping over Chittagong (Bangladesh) and Yangon (Myanmar). The helicopter pilots flew without navigational aids or landing pads in carrying relief material to remote islands and evacuating stranded people. By the 5th of January the airstrip at Carnic was finally declared unfit for heavy aircraft like the IL-76, but much of the initial rescue and evacuation work had already been achieved at that point and the sea-lift capacity of the Indian Navy was dominating relief efforts.

· Indian Navy and Coast Guard’s role: the naval assets of the sea forces component at the ANC were pressed into service almost as soon as the reports of the disaster in the southern islands reached the capital Port Blair. These included the Islander and Dornier aircraft, which joined their comrades of the IAF in dropping supplies and damage assessment. From the mainland initially the ENC but later also the Western Naval Command (WNC) was engaged in relief operations. Four ships were sent to Car Nicobar for casualty evacuation and relief——two more ships and one tanker carrying fresh water were dispatched from Vishakapatnam on the mainland. A Tu-142 Maritime Patrol aircraft flew over the islands on the evening of the 26th carrying out aerial reconnaissance and damage assessment. The operations of the navy and coast guard vessels were hampered due to the destruction of harbors and jetties by the Tsunami waves. For example the Destroyer INS Rajput had to anchor in deep waters while personnel on boats shipped 300 people from the devastated Little Andaman (Hut Bay) on board. Even the lighter Coast Guard vessels like the CGS Vivek had to rely on Chetak helicopters for dropping supplies to remote villages on the Great Nicobar Island. This hurdle was overcome in some cases by the use of floating pontoons and jetties, and later by the repair and restoration of ports by the navy——but these tasks used up more than a day of precious time. The use of amphibious vessels (known as Landing Ship Tanks or LST) like the INS Magar and INS Gharial, which have the ability to land directly on the beach, was critical in reaching the suffering populace but these vessels were too few in number for the hundreds of affected islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago stretches north-to-south for 724 km, and sea transport normally takes no less than 48 hours to cover this distance! It was then a commendable task for the Indian Navy and Coast Guard in finding groups of stranded people across hundreds of scattered islands and transporting them to 50 relief camps. Survey ships like the INS Darshak carried out a study of the ocean floor to detect any changes that would be crucial for merchant shipping passing through the region. The navy also deployed 46-bed hospital ships (INS Madad and INS Sandhayak) with ICUs and ran several medical centers on land. All this was achieved in the first week of operations. Ships were constantly moving between different operational areas, as by then assets from the navy and coast guard were simultaneously engaged in four other operations!

· Indian Army’s efforts: the land forces component in the ANC comprised at that time the 108 Mountain Brigade, infantry units like the 7 JAK (Jammu & Kashmir) Rifles, 5/5 Gorkha Rifles, and the 154 Infantry Battalion of the Territorial Army, and support services like the Corps of Signals. For the relief operations additional army engineering and medical units, infantry columns, and composite task forces, were dispatched from the mainland. The amphibious vessel INS Gharial, with 200 army personnel on board, happened to be on its way to Port Blair from the mainland at the time of the tragedy——it was now diverted south to Carnic where it unloaded 80 soldiers. These men opened a much-needed langar (kitchen) to provide cooked food for the affected population. Subsequently the same ship disembarked army and reserve police personnel at Campbell Bay and Nacowry. The army infantry columns were engaged in locating and rescuing inhabitants of remote villages located deep in forests. The engineering units did a stellar job in repairing roads and bridges within the large islands, leveling out new roads for other regions, and restoring electricity and water supply. Medical units operated field hospitals and medical centers in the 50 relief camps. Perhaps the most commendable were the units of the Corps of Signals——their detachment on Carnic restored communications with the capital Port Blair by 1430h on the very day the Tsunami had hit. Further they helped the IAF pilots in conducting air traffic control of the massive airlift operations then in progress within the islands and from the mainland. The civilian exchanges were also revived all across the islands, allowing the affected populace much needed direct connections with their loved ones and well-wishers. A satellite communication terminal was set up on the 27th of December to provide continuous communications for the administration.

· Coordination: the civil administration initially suffered from the lack of a dedicated disaster management policy or response mechanism for carrying out immediate rescue and relief. Individual officials were so overwhelmed by the catastrophe that some went into shock like the affected people, others evacuated on IAF planes with their families, and some others refused to come to the islands to direct relief efforts (India Today, 17 January 2005). But there were others who stuck to their jobs and tried their best with the limited resources and experience that they had. For a long time it has been the practice of the civil administration all across India to call on military aid in the face of natural calamities and civil disturbances. Politically the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a union territory administered by a centrally appointed Lt. Governor——five days after the Tsunami the central government announced an Integrated Relief Command that would combine the civil and military efforts. Its chairman was the Lt. Governor and his vice-chairman was the then chief of the ANC, Lt. General BS Thakur——since the armed forces were already in command of relief operations, and since they were the only ones with actual communications and transport assets, control of logistics and operations of this new set up was given over to them. Apart from the local police, units from central forces like the Home Guards, India Reserve Battalion Force, and Central Reserve Police Force, were shipped to the islands on IAF planes and navy vessels to help in the relief efforts. In New Delhi the Integrated Defense Staff, under Vice-Admiral Raman Puri, was coordinating Op Sea Wave. Representatives from the three services, the coast guard, the ministries of defense, home, external affairs, civil aviation, and shipping, were stationed at the IDS Headquarters to ascertain relief needs, to assign relief work to the respective service, and to extrapolate on future requirements. This coordination was effective on the ground——in one instance 600 kgs of essential medicines were landed by navy’s Dornier aircraft at Chennai and were then flown to Port Blair by a civilian aircraft. Military units from the mainland served under their respective component in the ANC; for example the Bravo 3 Dog Squad from the Remount and Veterinary Corps operated under the command of the 108 Mountain Brigade at Port Blair. The three dogs, Bawa, Badi, Brinda, and their handlers helped in locating dead bodies buried under rubble and so prevented an epidemic. Op Sea Wave was thus a striking example of inter-service cooperation and top-down coordination by the newly set-up IDS Headquarters.

Operation Madad

The Tsunami waves hurled into India’s east coast at 0910h and left a trail of destruction, unprecedented suffering, and the destruction of communication links. Fortunately the navy and coast guard assets were undamaged and almost immediately set out on damage assessment and search and rescue (SAR). As soon as reports reached New Delhi the operations team at the Naval War Room was ordered to close up and all ships and aircraft of the Eastern Naval Command were ordered to come to immediate readiness.

Initially the government’s efforts had been directed at the Andaman and Nicobar islands, from where the earliest reports had come, because firstly the local air forces component units and the IAF assets from the mainland had already commenced rescue and relief operations (later given the name Sea Waves). Secondly many in the government were still under the impression that the islands had suffered a localized disaster caused by an earthquake and the subsequent “rising of the seabed”.

But now when the word Tsunami had come into the public lexicon and the magnitude of the disaster had literally “hit home”, the government’s National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) at noon sanctioned another operation for the east coast. This was named Operation Madad (a Hindi word translating to aid/assistance)——this operation was to be conducted by the three services with coordination by the Integrated Defense Staff Headquarters.

After the all-important initial operations it became apparent that relief for the affected populace was best delivered by land. By that time the army had restored most of the communication links and the civil authorities had also come into the picture. So Operation Madad was officially called off after one week——although the armed forces continued to operate relief camps and field hospitals for several weeks later.

· Sea Operations: the vessels, docks, and harbors of the navy and coast guard were mostly unaffected by the Tsunami and were immediately out on damage assessment and search and rescue. 7 ships, 6 helicopters, and 4 aircraft of the navy and coast guard were pressed into service——these included Destroyers like the INS Ranvijay, Missile Corvettes like the INS Khukri, and amphibious vessels like the INS Sharabh. Their first tasks were search and rescue of fishing vessels and marooned people, diving operations for retrieving dead bodies, provision of medical first-aid and drinking water. Diving operations to clear obstructions from the ports of Chennai, Tuticorin, and Vishakapatnam, were also undertaken. Only at Nagapattinam the Naval detachment building and most boats were found damaged. At the same time relief material was air-dropped by helicopters and aircraft in isolated villages. Subsequently the navy deployed hospital ships and set up medical camps and field hospitals at Karaikal Medu, Pattinam Cherry, Pulicat, Pallepalayam, and Nagapattinam. On the east coast diving teams from Kochi cleared obstructions form the harbor at Kollam and a medical team provided assistance to the local hospital in Shertalai. Op Madad ended with hydrographic surveys and repair of port infrastructure along both the east and west coasts.

· Air Operations: the IAF flew 67 sorties in carrying out aerial surveys, dropping supplies and rescue operations in some areas. However the bulk of the operations were carried out from the land for logistical reasons.

· Land Operations: units from the southern command, like the Madras Sappers, the Madras Regimental Centre Wellington, and the Madras Engineering Group Bangalore, were engaged in relief operations. They were deployed within a few hours of the tragedy and engaged in the dignified disposal of dead bodies, removal of debris, evacuation of stranded people, opening of roads and repair of bridges, and distribution of relief material. The army also opened its own relief camps and medical centers in the districts of Nagappattinam, Cuddalore, Kanchipuram and Kalpakkam. On the west coast five infantry columns engaged in relief and rescue work in the districts of Thiruvananthapuram, Alleppey, Karunagappally and Allapapputura. In both areas again the Corps of Signals was the first to restore communication links both for the administration and for the benefit of the traumatized people. Brigadier Jose Manavalan, heading the Madras Engineering Group, Bangalore, led his men in cleaning fishing boat engines and in successfully convincing the fishermen to once again return to the sea.

Inter-service cooperation

By the evening of the 26th the Government of India (GOI), responding to appeals from the nations of Maldives and Sri Lanka, had sanctioned Operation Castor and Operation Rainbow for the two respectively. A few days later Operation Gambhir was sanctioned for the quake-affected and Tsunami-hit regions of Indonesia. Here again each service carried out its own operations with coordination at the top——in practical terms it meant the coordination of Indian army engineering, medical, and infantry task forces, with the Indian Navy aircraft and vessels for transport and operations overseas. Similarly the army’s relief material was carried by IAF aircraft for transport and delivery overseas. Subsequently the forces coordinated with the National Disaster Management Group for the distribution of relief material coming from the civil authorities.

As has been shown earlier Operation Sea Waves was unique in that it had on-the-ground operational coordination between the three services, the unified Andaman and Nicobar Command, and the civil administration.

On the other hand the other four operations, where each service carried out separate tasks with coordination by the IDS, were also successful. So the separate ownership of military assets and bases on the mainland will continue in the foreseeable future, while for any other distant base that may come up or for a temporary overseas deployment, the formation of unified commands seems logical.


1. The Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) was set up as a unified command because of its distance from the mainland. The need for operational control over air, land, and sea assets by the ANC Commander was crucial and the set-up was based partly on the US military’s unified commands like PACOM and CENTCOM. The functions of the ANC are to watch over shipping traffic coming through the Malacca Straits, taking action against pirates, drugs shipments, and arms smugglers, and keeping a watch over the activities of foreign navies operating near India’s territorial waters.

2. India refused material aid for the Tsunami tragedy due to its own vast stores of relief material, but it also turned down the services of NGOs and foreign navies for the Andaman and Nicobar islands citing logistics difficulties. Some in the western media went to town over this refusal and cited the presence of “secret” military installations on the islands as the real cause of refusal. But in fact there were sound reasons for turning down the presence of outsiders:

· The armed forces were engaged in relief operations within minutes of the tragedy. Foreign offers of aid came a few days later by which time there was a full swing operation catering to the affected population in the A&N——outside groups would have not done much except get in the way of existing ops.

· The GOI has followed a strict policy of non-interference in tribal inhabited islands to the extent of not even surveying them or their surrounding waters. Topographical maps of the region are not available for the public. So any foreign group would have fumbled its way around the islands and would have ended up lost or marooned, causing an additional drain on the Indian Armed Forces in rescuing them!

· Indian NGOs based in Kolkatta and from the local St. Thomas Cathedral, who were familiar with the region, were freely operating in several islands. It is not known what “secret” installations they uncovered in that time!


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