Military sends teams to deal with tsunami aftermath

Officials at the U.S. Pacific Command have tapped the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), based in Okinawa, Japan, to provide command, control and communications infrastructure for the tsunami humanitarian assistance headquarters that Pacom officials plan to set up in Utapao, Thailand.

Marine officials said III MEF has also provided teams to identify requirements for disaster relief and humanitarian aid to countries in the Indian Ocean region devastated by last week's tsunami, which caused a death toll that is still rising.

Marine Lt. Gen. James Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday in a State Department briefing that the three assessment teams have been dispatched to Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka and said their task is "to make an immediate assessment as to the nature and scope of the impact of the disaster."

III MEF officials said they will provide the command and control infrastructure for Pacom's newly established Joint Task Force-536 at the Utapao air base. A spokeswoman for III MEF at Camp Butler in Okinawa said command officials did not know the communications requirements of the new headquarters but expected those requirements to be developed within a matter of days by the assessment teams.

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, diverted from a port call in Guam to the Bay of Bengal for post-tsunami humanitarian operations, have a wide range of communications equipment with them "to support neatly any type of mission, be it tactical or in a humanitarian role," said GySgt. Robert Knoll, public affairs chief aboard the Bonhomme Richard.

These assets, Knoll said, include satellite communications that provide both voice and narrow-band data service to the Joint Task Force Enabler. The wide-band satellite communications system can provide access to the global defense networks and can tie into the Defense Department's classified and unclassified Internet systems.

Marine officials have used the Joint Task Force Enabler systems as critical communications systems to support deployed forces since the late 1990s in operations in Somalia, Macedonia and Afghanistan.

Conway said the seven ships in the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group, also know as Expeditionary Strike Group 5, carry 2,100 Marines in the 15th MEU in addition to 1,400 sailors. The ships carry a total of 29 helicopters, which will be valuable and instrumental in disaster relief operations, he said.

The tsunami wiped out water supply systems in many countries in the region. Conway said that to meet the need for water, the commander of the Bonhomme Richard Strike Group has moved five supply ships, each of which can produce 90,000 gallons of water a day, toward the Indian Ocean. These ships "will be extremely valuable, as we have a number of requests already for freshwater supply."

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