Tuesday, December 31, 2013

More helicopters and tanks, or more helicopters and thanks?

We've just recently seen another major natural disaster in our part of the world - Typhoon Haiyan devastating parts of the Philippines, inundating and almost wiping out Tacloban City, the capital of Leyte. Around the world, and in Singapore too, people rushed to give aid, whether in money or in kind, and many volunteered to go help out directly in the relief efforts. Unfortunately, just like in many other disasters in the past, the aid that was available actually took a long time reaching the victims and those in need, primarily due to logistical bottlenecks. There were reports of aid packages and food supplies being stuck in the home countries of donors, and even aid that arrived at airports in foreign countries could not be quickly moved to the location of the disaster.

This is not surprising, given that many of the places frequently hit by natural disasters also have poor transport infrastructure even in the best of times. Coupled with the destruction wrought by typoons, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, one often finds almost no passable roads or serviceable ports through which to ship critical food and medicine to affected areas. Even developed countries like Japan and the United States experienced local difficulties in bringing aid to the epicentres of disasters, like the earthquake/tsunami that hit Fukushima and Hurricane Katrina which destroyed New Orleans.

In times like this, the single most important player in relief efforts is arguably the military. In most countries, only the military has the necessary transport and engineering capabilities to deal with the problem rapidly. The very nature of military operations requires troops, vehicles and supplies to be transported to any location in as short a time as possible. To that end, engineering units are equipped with heavy vehicles to bridge gaps and rivers, and to build roads and structures if necessary. Entire airstrips can be constructed in a matter of weeks. Debris, such as fallen tress, collapsed buildings, overturned cars, boats washed ashore, and so on, cannot easily be moved without heavy vehicles. Searching for survivors inside collapsed structures is also difficult if the top slabs of concrete or brick cannot be removed.

Water-based natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes naturally cause the most damage to coastal cities and towns. This makes naval transport the most effective means of reaching the disaster areas. Civilian vessels may be able to transport personnel and supplies effectively, but almost always have no means of bringing those ashore without proper dock facilities. Naval vessels, on the other hand, have amphibious capabilities or the support from rotary-wing aircraft like the heavy-lift Chinook or the Sea Stallion. These can bring urgent supplies like fresh water and medicines to remote jungle regions, or places that have been cut off by heavy flooding or destroyed roads. They can also, on the return journey, bring out casualties or simply evacuate refugees from places that are no longer habitable. A secondary ability is to help with heavy lifting, such as to move debris blocking roads and airfields.

Engineers also have the ability to quickly set up temporary structures. The skills needed to rapidly build a command post or field hospital are the same skills that can be used to create temporary housing and medical facilities, or storage and distribution sites for food aid. Of course, it is not just about the skill or the building materials - the ability to transport these to the locations where they are most needed is also generally found only in the military. In places where shelter is urgently needed, such as when the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 destroyed homes during winter, this ability is essential to prevent further loss of life in the aftermath of a disaster.

Here in Singapore, our Armed Forces have also been involved in recent times with humanitarian assistance. RSAF Chinooks training in the United States were dispatched to assist in the relief efforts during Hurricane Katrina, soldiers training in New Zealand assisted during the earthquake that hit Christchurch, and supplies were flown in to Aceh after it was hit by the earthquake and tsunami. As far as I know, however, these are ad-hoc missions put together whenever a crisis or disaster happens. I'm certainly not privy to internal MINDEF plans, but I have the impression that units are activated and diverted from their primary military missions whenever these humanitarian missions are required.

I think would be good for us to consider creating a permanent, full-time, military humanitarian rapid-response force. Not just a polyglot force put together when disaster strikes, but a team that trains full-time to handle a wide gamut of contingencies and is equipped with significant military assets, or can call upon such assets from other units, to enable it to fulfill its mission.

I envision this rapid reaction force to consist of three parts - the first, the core team of full-time military personnel who would be on constant alert and ready to put into motion the rest of the machinery when needed. The second, a primary team of military personnel, who belong to other units, but can be called up at short notice to join any humanitarian mission. The third, a secondary team of civilian personnel, consisting of both operationally-ready NSmen as well as other civilians like women and non-Singaporeans working in Singapore, who are committed to taking a short leave of absence from their day jobs to join these missions. All three teams should be heavily made up of trained medical personnel, whether doctors, nurses or medics, engineer personnel who can operate heavy equipment like bulldozers or are trained in disaster recovery operations and logistics, and drivers and pilots for the trucks and helicopters needed. Military police should also be included to assist in security and crowd management issues.

For the core team, a base of operations should be established, preferably near an embarkation point for such a military mission, which would likely be one of the naval bases. This is where storage depots can also be created to house the supplies and heavy equipment to be used in such an emergency. The core team would be responsible for monitoring news feeds and communication channels set up with foreign governments. Once a disaster strikes, this team should quickly alert the top authorities in Singapore, and set in motion diplomatic efforts to secure permission for a humanitarian mission. A permanent, publicly designated humanitarian force will be useful in this regard because "permission" can be sought from other countries prior to a disaster happening which will allow this force quick access to foreign soil without too much bureaucracy in the critical moments. To go further, this force may also include military officers from foreign armies, similar to "exchange programmes" we have where someone is embedded for a time to help us learn from one another. These officers can act as liaisons with their home countries in times of crises and help smooth the political hurdles involved in getting troops on the ground on foreign soil during an emergency.

For the primary team, as soon as they are activated, they should assemble and prepare the necessary equipment to meet the needs on the ground, based on the situation after the disaster. Almost always the key elements are bottled water, packed dry foods, medicine and first aid supplies, warm clothing, temporary housing. Engineer equipment should be loaded onto naval or air transports immediately, and all required helicopters should be prepped on the designated naval carriers, or at their bases if the disaster region is near enough to home. If possible, a field hospital or even a floating hospital could be provided, although the latter is an expensive facility that few countries can afford.

For the secondary team, NSmen who volunteer to be part of this should have these missions (and relevant annual trainings) considered as fulfilling part of their NS liabilities. Civilians who volunteer should also be given special permission from their employers to leave at short notice to help, and this can be secured through MINDEF's direct engagement with employers. It cannot be stressed enough that speed is of the utmost importance in disaster response, where days that pass mean more lives are lost through lack of drinking water, starvation, disease and inadequate shelter. I am sure there are many people who would be willing to volunteer to help out their neighboring countries in such times of crisis. For the actual cost of the supplies and even the consumables required for the military missions, such as fuel and food for the members of the mission team, these can come from the donations that invariably flood in after a disaster but are difficult to channel in a useful manner. For example, large corporations, and even individual aid agencies like the Red Cross, can be asked to, on a regular basis, make a donation to a standing fund administered in a transparent and accountable manner by the reaction force. This fund can be used to purchase the supplies and equipment.

Why should we do this?

First, it gives our soldiers and volunteers valuable field experience, preparing them to deal with possible future crises in Singapore itself. For our pilots and engineers, these missions will also not be dissimilar from actual combat missions they may have to carry out. In a recent exercise with ASEAN forces, troops from the People's Liberation Army demonstrated using a bridge-layer to cross a flooded area to reach victims of a simulated disaster. This skill is exactly the same as what would be needed in a military operation.

Secondly, it gives our full-time National Servicemen and soldiers an added motivation in their military service, to see how their hard work directly translates into saving lives and improving communities around them.

Thirdly, we strengthen our national defence by generating large amounts of goodwill among neighboring populations. This is part of MINDEF's core mission - to ensure the security of Singapore. There is a point beyond which we will experience diminishing returns from our defense spending on military hardware. One more Leopard tank or F-15 gives us marginal gains in security, since we are technologically already so far ahead of our rivals. Putting the same few million dollars into a humanitarian force will instead generate far greater security dividends.

Friendly nations do not generally go to war with one another. Even if a radical government were to try to agitate against Singapore for domestic political reasons, it will find itself unable to generate public support for conflict if the general population in that country has good relations with Singaporeans, built up through humanitarian efforts. Very few people will, in good conscience, be able to advocate going to war with a country that gave them urgently needed food, water and medicine during a crisis. In countless incidents throughout history, military units and security forces have disobeyed orders from their political leaders when they believed such orders were immoral.

The fourth and final reason is that it is the morally right thing to do. We should not sit by with our abundant resources and strong military while offering little or piecemeal assistance when people are dying and suffering around us. If we want to be a country that we are proud to call ourselves citizens of, one of the best things we can do is show that we are prepared to do our part to make the world around us a better place.

"We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop." - Mother Teresa