By the afternoon of the 26th requests for aid and assistance came from the affected countries of Sri Lanka and the Maldives–the Government of India (GOI) announced Operation Rainbow and Operation Castor for the two countries respectively. These operations were also run from the IDS headquarters with representatives of strategic ministries and departments present to coordinate civil-military efforts.
Far away in the Pacific Ocean, at the Hawaii-based headquarters of the US military’s joint Pacific Command (PACOM) it was still the afternoon of the 25th across the International Date Line, when reports of the earthquake and Tsunami first came in. Operational planning for responding to the disaster began immediately with PACOM in direct contact with US Ambassadors and local military officials of the affected nations. By the 27th this effort had been named Operation Unified Assistance and was backed by the formation of an inter-agency core group at Washington to synchronize civil-military operations.
The US military has the largest presence in the region and it seemed natural that they would be deployed for relief operations. However this intervention was attributed by some commentators to the US government’s “plan” of re-establishing military relations with Indonesia and gaining sympathy/appreciation from Muslims (India’s swift response in dispatching aid its neighbors was similarly described as “power projection” and India’s “pitch” for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council). Curiously these same commentators also criticized the Bush administration for initially providing a very low aid package of 3.5 million dollars. Now if the US really had a plan for gaining influence or appreciation would they have come up with such a low figure, when even Tsunami-hit India announced a 25 million dollar aid package for its neighbors?
In fact, like in all other countries, the US military also has international search and rescue responsibilities. Additionally it has commitments to allies like Thailand (affected by the Tsunami) and a military understanding, stemming from past exercises, with other powers in the region. The first reports of the Tsunami disaster had come from India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, of which India and Thailand had announced that they would not require any international relief assistance. PACOM had established a regional base for relief operations at Utapao in Thailand by the 28th December and sent disaster relief assessment teams to the affected countries.
It was at this time that Indonesia finally uncovered the massive destruction in its remote province of Aceh and the total uprooting of its local administration, and consequently appealed for aid internationally. The US increased its aid package to 350 million dollars and dispatched military assets to Aceh, which were the first to reach the region on the 1st of January. India also responded to Indonesia’s appeal for aid and despite its armed forces being already engaged in four simultaneous operations, announced Operation Gambhir (Grim), dispatching two ships and aircraft that began relief work on the 5th of January.
With Indian troops being the first to engage in relief operations, alongside local troops in Sri Lanka and Maldives, while the Americans played that role in Indonesia, the US government announced the formation of a “Tsunami Core Group” on the 29th December to coordinate relief work in this unprecedented global calamity. That same day the US asked India to join this group alongside long-term allies Japan and Australia.
Here again there was criticism that this core group was formed deliberately to bypass existing United Nation’s bodies–a criticism that saw every US action through the prism of the recent Iraq War. In fact the core group was formed so that aid efforts would be streamlined, duplication of relief would be avoided, and operational requirements for each nation would be met speedily. Besides the large monetary aid promised by Japan and Australia, each country also put in military forces into their relief work. Although Australian aircraft were dropping supplies in Indonesia by early January, their ships did not reach the region until the middle of that month. Similarly Japanese self-defense forces were fully deployed on the Indonesian coast only at the end of January.
So the “Tsunami Core Group” was in fact coordination between the United States and India–both leading and dominating operations in South-east Asia and South Asia respectively.
Secondly even though foreign ministers and secretaries from the core group countries had daily teleconferences to coordinate efforts, their lack of operational knowledge and real-time information meant that these teleconferences became unnecessary. Later on Canada, EU countries, and the UN also became part of the core group, which was finally dissolved a week after the post-Tsunami relief operations had begun.
Other international efforts
Apart from the militaries of the affected nations, and the forces contributed by the Tsunami Core Group, there were countries in the region that also gave crucial aid to their neighbors. The global response was also commendable–Germany and Sweden were directly affected by the Tsunami as they lost thousands of their citizens in the tourist resorts of Thailand to the destructive waves. But due to the distances involved, global military assets took a long time to deploy in the affected region.
In South-East Asia, Singapore and Malaysia were specially noted for their contribution of military assets–Singapore deployed 5 C-130 aircraft, 4 CH-47 and 4 Super Puma helicopters, and two LST vessels. Along with Thailand it also opened its bases for the use of military assets from long-term ally, the United States. Malaysia deployed 2 C-130 and 3 other aircraft, 2 helicopters, one ship, and medical and engineering teams to Indonesia. It also opened its bases for use by the United Nations relief agencies.
In South Asia, Bangladesh sent 2 C-130 aircraft, 3 helicopters, and 2 ships for relief work in Sri Lanka–this being the first occasion when the Bangladesh Navy has deployed its assets in an overseas operation. Curiously Pakistan, which is a much bigger military power than Bangladesh, contributed similar assets for the post-Tsunami relief operations–4 ships, 2 C-130 aircraft, and a medical team. Out of their four ships deployed, the PNS Badar and the PNS Tariq happened to have made a port call to Male on December 23rd and were still in the Maldives when the Tsunami hit three days later–these two ships joined the Maldives Coast Guard and the Indian Air Force aircraft for search and rescue operations on the 27th.The Pakistani Armed Forces certainly had the capacity to contribute more since they have received several C-130 and P-3 Orion aircraft, helicopters, and vessels, as military aid from the United States in the last six years.
But at least they contributed some military assets–the most bewildering absence was of China. The country has acquired naval bases in South-East Asia, has professed its ambition of obtaining other bases in South Asia, and is a rising economic and military power like India. However the communist nation neither sent the PLA navy nor deployed the PLA air force in relief operations in its neighborhood. It only promised monetary aid, sent one medical team to Sri Lanka, and some relief material to Indonesia.
The UN and NGOs
The scale of destruction in the 26th December earthquake and Tsunami necessitated the massive deployment of military assets by the affected countries, their neighbors, and the Tsunami Core Group. The United Nations and Non Governmental Organizations did not have the resources or the assets to provide timely aid in each affected area. The repairing of infrastructure and communication links, provision of relief material, and setting up of medical camps, by the military forces was a great help to the UN and NGOs in starting their own operations. But they had other differences (and some advantages) over the military forces in the delivery of aid:
Organizational infrastructure: the United Nations, and its various agencies, has regional headquarters and branch offices all around the world, which provide first-hand information on calamities or emergencies to the central headquarters in New York. They also employ people of all nationalities and linguistic groups, which give them an advantage in setting up operations in affected regions. The bigger non-governmental organizations like the International Red Cross/Crescent, Care, World Vision, also have worldwide offices and headquarters that enable them to receive information on calamities and organize rehabilitation measures. With regard to financial resources, the UN and NGOs have a comparable access to money and material with most countries. But while national aid funds, for example the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund in India, spend aid money directly for relief, the UN agencies and NGOs consume unspecified amounts of similar aid money in financing their own organizations (payment of salaries, cost of operations, etc.). By way of comparison, in India’s relief operation for Indonesia named Gambhir (Grim), two ships with onboard helicopters and 40-tonnes of relief material operated for one month off the port of Meulaboh. The Ministry of Defence sanctioned a sum of Rs 100 crore (app $25 million) from within the Naval Budget to cover the cost of this operation…without expecting reimbursement or depending on charity.
Assets: the UN and its agencies have access to transport assets with the United Nations Humanitarian Air Services (UNHAS) and the United Nations Joint Logistics Center (UNJLC). They can hire vehicles, helicopters, aircraft, and ships with the assistance of other international sources like the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). The UN also has access to the military assets, bases, and ports of each home country–the NGOs piggyback on both the UN and the home country’s military and civil assets (the bigger NGOs though have their own dedicated air and road transport assets). But this process of hiring, purchase, and deployment in the affected region takes up time and in the case of a global calamity, which the Indian Ocean Tsunami was, the deployment of international military assets was a great help to the operations of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations. For civil-military coordination the UN has the office of Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) and Civil-Military Coordination officers (CMCoord) working under the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)–the latter office had drawn up principles for military support to the United Nations’ humanitarian operations, which were endorsed by the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC).
Diplomatic relations: India’s excellent relations, diplomatic understanding, and military relationship with the other Tsunami-affected countries went a long way in ensuring the smooth conduct of its relief operations. In June 2006, after an earthquake on the landmass of Sumatra the Indian forces launched Operation Marham (balm) for relief work, which included the deployment of the navy vessels INS Rajput and INS Tabar and the air force’s IL-76 aircraft with 35-tonnes of relief material in total. The US had similar relations with only Thailand, while suspicion and hostility marred its diplomatic understanding with Malaysia and Indonesia respectively–the relief operations were an opportunity to repair these relationships for the US (and also Australia). The United Nations and NGOs were mostly welcomed in countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand but were looked upon with suspicion in Indonesia due to the experience of the creation of independent East Timor. Though the US had military bases close to the Tsunami-affected nation of Somalia, no US personnel or assets were deployed in relief operations due to the uneasy relationship between the two countries, and it were officials of the United Nations who carried out a disaster assessment of the region (surprisingly neighboring African or Arab countries did not aid in these operations even though Somalia, like Indonesia, had appealed for international aid). UN agencies began relief operations from the 28th of December due to the lack of deployable assets described above, by which time hundreds of lives had been lost in Somalia.
Both the US-led relief operations in South-East Asia and the India-led operations in South Asia revealed some interesting features and shortcomings:
Airlift capacity: Operation Unified Assistance showcased the awesome ability of the US military to transport troops, equipment, and relief goods by air across vast distances in a relatively short time. Their resources, particularly in long-range aircraft and mid-air refueling, gave them an edge over their other allies engaged in relief operations. India’s timely assistance to its neighbors and to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands came from the heavy-lift IL-76 and IL-78 aircraft–the medium-lift An-32s were also laudable in these operations. But the IAF’s Avro aircraft and the Navy’s Dornier and Islander planes took several refueling stops in delivering aid to the affected regions. Secondly many damaged airfields could not support operations by the heavy IL-76 aircraft. Lastly while India has mid-air refueling capability, this has been reserved so far for its fighter aircraft. These shortcomings will be overcome as India continues to upgrade the aircraft in its inventory (the recent move to acquire the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft is motivated by their ability to operate from short and damaged runways). In its helicopter operations the IAF scored with its Mi-17s and Mi-8s but the shortcomings of the Chetak and Cheetah helicopters onboard the navy and coast guard vessels were exposed.
Sealift capacity: the Indian Navy earned worldwide acclaim by the promptness of its deployment for the post-Tsunami operations and the speed by which it reached the affected areas. In the actual conduct of operations, particularly in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands where harbors were unfit for use and jetties had been destroyed, a clear shortcoming was seen in the delivery of aid to the shore using helicopters (see above) or boats. The amphibious vessels overcame this difficulty until the repair operations were completed–these vessels are of the old LST (Landing Ship Tank) and LCU class. Their drawbacks in speed, range, and tonnage (as well as total numbers), prompted the Navy to upgrade its amphibious capability by acquiring the USS Trenton. A Landing Platform Dock (LPD), with 4 onboard Mark Eight landing craft and 6 H-3 Sea King Helicopters, this vessel has now joined the Indian Navy under the new name INS Jalashva (water horse).
Military coordination: the different branches of the US military have been tasked to carry out joint operations under a single field-commander by the 1986 Goldwater-Nicols Defense Reorganization Act. So planes of the air force, ships of the navy, artillery guns of the army, and personnel from all three services, will be placed under a single commander in a particular region. The joint headquarters of that commander will plan and execute operations involving all these assets and personnel. Thus in the Tsunami disaster of 2004-05 the Pacific Command (PACOM), then under the Navy’s Admiral Thomas Fargo, planned Op Unified Assistance–the military assets and personnel drawn from the US mainland and from independent commands in S Korea and Japan came under the control of PACOM. The actual conduct of the operation was tasked to the joint headquarters (CSF-536) set up at Utapao–the assets and personnel deployed came under the CSF-536 Commander, the Marine Corps’ Lt. General Rusty Blackman. A joint headquarters for the three armed forces of India was proposed by a Group of Ministers under the NDA government in 2001–due to opposition within the services operational control of military assets was not handed over to this Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) Headquarters. India’s five post-Tsunami relief operations were planned and coordinated by the IDS, which was then under the command of the Navy’s Vice-Admiral Raman Puri–unlike in the US, operational control of military assets remained with the individual service. In Operation Sea Waves actual conduct of operations and delivery of relief within the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was tasked to the ANC, then under the Army’s Lt. General BS Thakur.
Under the New Framework for the US-India Defense Relationship, the two countries will increase military coordination and hold joint exercises to respond effectively to future disasters. The lead in this regard was taken by the US Pacific Command (PACOM) and India’s Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). Additionally the US has asked for the posting of an Indian liaison officer at PACOM Headquarters. With regard to maritime security India is already a part of the US-led PSI (Proliferation Security Initiative) and CSI (Container Security Initiative), apart from its own Operations Tasha and Swan.
Apart from exercises like Cobra Gold with long-term allies the US began exercises with ASEAN nations titled SEACAT (South East Asian Cooperation against Terrorism) and CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) from 2005. India holds institutional exercises with 6 nations (of which Exercise Malabar is held with the US) among 22 other exercises, and has defense agreements and joint patrols with ASEAN nations.
In early 2006 the USS Ronald Reagan and the INS Viraat (both aircraft carriers) held an impromptu exercise off the coast of Sri Lanka–the Indian Navy was invited to post observers for the Valiant Shield and Rimpac exercises held in the Pacific Ocean. An Indian Medical Officer has been deployed on the USS Mercy since mid-2006 to improve inter-operability in disaster relief operations.
Areas of future coordination may possibly include:
Logistics and bases: the refueling and refitting of US Navy vessels at Indian Navy dockyards would save the US vessels the usual diversion to Diego Garcia in the far south for these facilities. These dockyards regularly service navy vessels from Sri Lanka and Mauritius, and recently provided refitting facilities to a French warship. The vast landmass of India is covered with air bases where the US air and army assets have been sent for joint exercises with their Indian counterparts–here again refueling and maintenance facilities will probably be extended to US air assets to improve inter-operability and cooperation. On the other hand the US has a wealth of bases and ports, which it either owns or leases, around the Pacific Ocean, Arabian Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and the littoral countries, which can be used by Indian naval and air assets for joint operations and exercises in regions far removed from the landmass of India.
UN Operations: the permanent presence of two large military forces in the Indian Ocean region will increase the options for the sanctioning of UN Peacekeeping or Humanitarian operations. Especially when these forces have complimentary skills and capacities, and are practiced in a variety of joint operations in all kinds of terrain.
Military coalitions: speedy and effective action against terrorist groups harbored by weak or unstable regimes, with the sanction of the UN or at least the neighboring countries, will perhaps be the primary focus for the 21st century militaries. For the Indian Ocean region, and maybe even for West, Central, and East Asia, the increasing coordination between the US and Indian armed forces will by itself be a threat to such groups.
While the US-India military relationship has the potential for the above, it is a little surprising that it is limited by the Cold War defense arrangement made by earlier US administrations. The Area of Responsibility (AOR) for the US Pacific Command ends in the west at Diego Garcia; the East African countries along the Arabian Sea fall into the AOR of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which is already engaged in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. From west to east the CENTCOM’s AOR stretches from Turkey to Pakistan. For this reason all of the joint military exercises between the US and India have involved assets drawn from PACOM.
While this division had the potential for thwarting India’s economic and strategic interests in West and Central Asia, in reality India has nurtured close ties with most countries in the CENTCOM operational area. India had initially offered to supply troops for the peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, but the US had declined that offer with Pakistan’s interests in mind–India though built on its past good relations with Afghanistan and has now acquired a definite stake in that vital country’s future. Interestingly the US had no such qualms in requesting Indian troops in another CENTCOM operation–Iraq. Though the then NDA government was enthusiastic about this offer for strategic reasons; under pressure from the opposition Congress and in light of the growing insurgency in Iraq it eventually turned down this request.