Institutionalizing U.S. Military Disaster Relief

haitiAs the world learns the toll of Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. military is once again leading the American response to a devastating natural disaster. By Wednesday, U.S. Air Force special operations personnel had secured the airport at Port-au-Prince, and about 5,000 soldiers and Marines from the 82nd Airborne Division and 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are on their way to Haiti to assist the UN force there in providing security and support for relief efforts.

At sea, the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and the Bataan amphibious group are en route loaded with helicopters to assist the relief effort. Coast Guard cutters and aircraft are already on the scene. Air Force airlifters have brought in personnel and supplies to the island.

Military involvement in disaster relief is nothing new. U.S. Southern Command alone has been involved in 14 disaster relief missions since 2005. More prominent were the post-tsunami relief effort in 2004-05 and earthquake recovery efforts in Pakistan in 2005.

Over the last decade or so, disaster relief has become a core — if rarely acknowledged — mission of the U.S. military. Debates over the future of the military have concentrated on disputes over what sort of enemy the United States might fight in the future — a high-tech conventional adversary or unconventional insurgents. While important, this debate obscures an equally critical role the U.S. military plays as the provider of global public goods like disaster relief.

Americans constantly fret over whether or we are or should be a global policeman. But they haven’t noticed that we have become, largely by default, a global fire department and ambulance service. For massive disasters like the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami, the U.S. military is the only entity that can organize the necessary air- and sea-lift to get to disaster stricken areas with sufficient relief aid in a quick enough time period. There are no substitutes for the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers, and the U.S. Air Force’s airlift fleet outstrips what’s available for contract.

Military planners may think that this sort of disaster relief capacity is a “lesser included contingency” — a capability that is a beneficial side-effect of current military strategy. While this assumption is for the most part correct, U.S. policymakers should start explicitly including disaster relief as a core mission of the U.S. military and factor it into their resource allocation decisions.

Unlike the nature and behavior of future adversaries, we can be certain that horrendous natural disasters will happen in the foreseeable future. The U.S. military currently takes the lead in responding to these tragedies, and policymakers should institutionalize this capability and make it even more effective in the future.