Beating Ebola From The Sea
Ebola is such a terrible disease that it has turned the norms of humanitarian relief operations upside down. In the case of hurricanes, earthquakes, and famines; non- governmental organizations usually flood to the scene to help. But the cancellation of airline travel and the risk to aid workers and first responders is so great that this help is lacking. President Obama's decision to use military assets to help is understandable, but the quality of military assistance is as important as good intentions.
Sending planeloads of military personnel, no matter how well trained, to be on the ground for an extended period of time is not a good idea for a number of reasons. First, it increases the chance of our personnel being exposed to the disease exponentially. Granted, military personnel are paid to take risks that civilian volunteers can or will not take; but force protection is second only to mission accomplishment in the military pantheon. Second, the presence of American military boots on the ground for what appears to be a long time produces signals that we may not want to be sending in underdeveloped nations with remaining suspicions of colonialism directed toward the west. There are alternatives to this approach, and we should consider them.
One alternative is sea basing the American response. The US Navy and Marine Corps have been expanding and refining their sea basing capabilities for a number of years. The capabilities were rightfully designed for combat, but the Navy-Marine Corps team has used sea basing to support humanitarian relief and disaster assistance (HA/DR) operations for two decades. Beginning in 1991, with the highly successful OPERATION SEA ANGEL in Bangladesh. The United States has done actual operations in places as diverse as Somalia and Japan and they periodically exercise the HA/DR capabilities periodically; it will do so this fall in EXERCISE BOLD ALLIGATOR on the East Coast.
I was the Director of Operations (J-3) for SEA ANGEL. We made a decision to sea base early because democracy in Bangladesh was very fragile and the sudden appearance of large numbers of uniformed foreigners might undermine the government and do more harm than good. As our assessment team arrived, the leftist press was already speculating that we were there to rob the country of resources.
We soon realized that there were plenty of relief supplies, but that flooded roads and destroyed ports prevented the transport to where the relief was needed. The helicopters and shallow draft landing craft were a blessing to the Bangladeshis. The aid recipients began calling the sailors and marines who delivered this aid “angels from the sea” because they brought help and disappeared seaward quickly. This caused General Powell who was then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to change the operation name from PRODUCTIVE EFFORT to SEA ANGEL. At any given time, we never had more than three hundred troops on the ground overnight out of a task force of over 9000.
The Ebola outbreak is different from the cyclone and flood that caused us to go to Bangladesh or the famine that led us to do a largely sea based HA/DR effort in Somalia in 1993. While the delivery of medical supplies and the building of emergency treatment facilities are needed, medical expertise is also required. This is where the flexibility of the Navy-Marine Corps team can be used to good advantage. A Marine Corps Air-Ground Task Force can be tailored to make its focus of effort medical and logistical rather than the amphibious delivery of combat power. Expeditionary clinics can be built in a day or two while medical experts are teaching local medical personnel to properly use US supplied protective gear and handle patients to give care without unduly endangering themselves.
From a security standpoint, Marines could teach host nation security forces to screen border and uninfected area check points for people with symptoms of the disease so they can be taken aside for further screening limiting the now uncontrolled spread of the disease.
A sea based joint task force would reduce risk and protect the fragile democracies that are being undermined by the disease. Rather than appear to be stepping in to overshadow national governments, we could reinforce them by making sure that we are supporting with those governments clearly in the lead. We don't buy naval ships and train marines to be humanitarians, but having the humanitarian tool in our kit gives extra value to the money we spend on defense.