Operation Tsunami Aid
DOD uses IT in biggest relief effort since Berlin airlift
- By Bob Brewin
- Apr 25, 2005
HONOLULU Pacific Command personnel in Hawaii were off duty and enjoying their Christmas holiday, but across the dateline, a massive 9.0 earthquake created a disaster of horrific proportions, devastating countries across the vast Indian Ocean.
On Christmas Day, Air Force Maj. Neal Schneider, an information management officer with the U.S. Pacific Command, glanced at his TV and knew he had to scratch any plans for a holiday with his family.
Schneider, who was scheduled to be on duty at Pacific Command's Joint Operations Center that night, took one look at that report and headed to the command's Camp Smith location on the heights above Pearl Harbor.
"I knew Pacom was going to be heavily involved, and I knew it was my duty to come in early," Schneider said during an interview at Camp Smith last month.
He said he initiated processes to start planning for whatever networks would be needed to support the command's relief efforts.
Down on the east side of Pearl Harbor, at Hickam Air Force Base, reports of the tsunami and its potentially devastating impact on countries from Sri Lanka to Thailand started to filter in to the U.S. Pacific Air Forces headquarters.
Col. Mark Tapper, 502 Air Operations group commander at Pacific Air Forces headquarters, said once those reports started to come in, the group's Air and Space Operations Center immediately set up planning cells "to see what we could do to mitigate the number of deaths, suffering and casualties."
The Defense Department conducted an unprecedented humanitarian relief operation to aid victims of the tsunami.
"This was the largest relief operation since the Berlin airlift" after World War II, Tapper said.
To aid countries hit by last year's tsunami, the Air Force airlifted an average of 261 tons of relief supplies a day for 47 days, he said. The Navy deployed a veritable humanitarian relief armada off the shores of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, with a total of 18 ships and 35 embarked helicopters dedicated to tsunami relief operating in the region at one time or another beginning in December and continuing into this month.
Randy Cieslak, chief information officer of the Pacific Command in Honolulu, said that managing such a complex relief operation required equally complex and innovative networks. The command and its constituent commands not only had to set up satellite networks to serve U.S. forces, they also had to work with governments in the region and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the United Nations, Project Hope and the Red Cross.
At its peak, the humanitarian relief networks used myriad satellite links across the Pacific and Indian oceans, including one broadband 8 megabits/sec circuit and a variety of hastily formed networks cobbled together from a wide range of commercial hardware and services. These included Wi-Fi and WiMax networks, cell phone text messaging, instant messaging applications and collaborative software from Microsoft's Groove Networks division.
The disaster required Pacific Command and its staff to react quickly. By Dec. 27, 2004, the Defense Department's top command had assigned the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) based in Okinawa, Japan, to manage the relief operations. Col. Medio Monti, director of command, control and communications for III MEF, was tasked with setting up networks for the relief
operations center at a Thai Air Force Base in Utapao, Thailand.
Monti said that at first he didn't grasp the extent of the havoc caused by the tsunami or its toll on human lives. But when he and a small team of Marine communicators landed at Utapao on Dec. 28, "it started to hit us that this was huge, and the loss of life was more than anyone could imagine."
Monti and his team landed at Utapao with Lightweight Multi-band Satellite Terminals (LMSTs) from Harris capable of accessing military and commercial satellites and the Internet. They also brought a handful of computers for the staff of the newly established Combined Support Force-536 (CSF-536). At the same time, Monti said LMST teams deployed from Okinawa had started setting up operations in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Marine communicators quickly set up the LMSTs and gained access to the Defense Information Systems Network using a commercial satellite owned and operated by Inmarsat Group, which gave the CSF-536 headquarters staff a connection to DOD's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET) and the Non-secure Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNET). Back in Honolulu, the command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) operations staff of the Pacific Fleet started to obtain and manage the satellite circuits for the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and the USS Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group, which headed to the Indian Ocean.
Cmdr. Carolyn Westphal, director of the Pacific Fleet's C4I operations, said the Navy faced a real challenge providing satellite support to the task forces because the Indian Ocean area of operations fell within the Defense Satellite Communications System used by the Navy.
Working with the Defense Information Systems Agency-Pacific (DISA-Pac), Westphal said she was able to gain access to a reserve a Navy satellite for the humanitarian relief task forces. Col. Gil Griffin, commander of DISA-Pac, said he worked with the Navy to "home" that reserve satellite on downlinks in Okinawa, rather than on terminals used by the Navy in Hawaii and Bahrain.
Personnel at DISA headquarters in Washington, D.C., also ramped up their support for CSF-536. By New Year's Eve just days after the disaster Army Brig. Gen. Dennis Via, DISA's director of operations, said the agency, in conjunction with the Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations, had set up a tsunami operations cell staffed by 80.
At Hickam, the Pacific Fleet command, control and communications staff started to marshal Air Force resources to support Monti and the air component of CSF-536. Maj. Terrence Adams, a tactical planner on the Pacific Air Forces staff, said the Air Force command tapped the 18th Communications Squadron in Okinawa to take its palletized Theater Deployable Communications package to Utapao.
This package, Adams said, included a quad-band satellite terminal, the ANB/USC-60 manufactured by L3 Communications, with routers and multiplexers to provide phone service and SIPRNET and NIPRNET communications.
In early January, as CSF-536 morphed into the headquarters for a multinational force called Operation Unified Assistance, Monti realized he had a problem. He had more than enough military assets and personnel including deployed DISA personnel to provide SIPRNET and NIPRNET communications.
What he lacked, Monti said, was an unclassified network that could also be accessed by military personnel from Thailand, Indonesia, Australia and other countries, as well as representatives from the United Nations, other NGOs and U.S. civilian agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Monti said he also believed it was necessary to set up a separate, shared unclassified network for purposes of trust, which he believed could not be achieved with U.S. personnel operating behind a classified wall.
Monti set up this multinational network the easy, commercial way. He bought 12 wireless 802.11b/g wireless access points manufactured by the Linksys division of Cisco Systems and set them up around the Unified Assistance compound at Utapao, with Internet connectivity provided by a wired broadband connection with a Thai Internet service provider.
He also purchased 100 laptop computers with built-in wireless capabilities and issued them to personnel from a wide range of countries and organizations working at the Unified Assistance headquarters.
When his information assurance officer blanched at the idea of a DOD-led operation using commercial wireless tools, Monti said he told him, "We're here to help people, and we can't do it in a classified environment." Once Monti had the network set up and the laptops turned on, "I told everyone to get a [free] Hotmail account" to ensure smooth e-mail communication.
Monti said his personal Hotmail account was invaluable when the Microsoft Exchange servers in Okinawa, which were hosting his military e-mail account, went down. He also used MSN Messenger instant messaging service, which he found was the only reliable link between Utapao and U.S. forces in Medan, Indonesia, close to the heavily damaged city of Bandeh Aceh.
After polling the NGOs at Utapao, Monti decided to use collaboration software from Groove Networks rather than WebEx Communications software provided by DISA for the operation.
Pacific Command followed Monti's lead, installing Groove software at terminals in the Joint Operations Center in Honolulu and other terminals at Camp Smith for a simple reason: "You can't collaborate unless everyone has the same tools," Cieslak said.
Commercial cell phones emerged as key communications tools for Operation Unified Assistance, Monti said. He bought 400 cell phones for use in Thailand, 100 for use in Sri Lanka and another 56 for use in Indonesia. Because the phones are based on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard, Monti said, they can easily be programmed for future operations by inserting prepaid cards that provide access to cell phone networks worldwide.
Cmdr. Eric Rasmussen, a doctor based at the Naval Hospital Bremerton in Washington state, also found cell phones invaluable for communications during an 11-day fact-finding tour in Indonesia for Linton Wells, acting chief information officer, and Rear Adm. Elizabeth Hight, director of net-centric warfare in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
Rasmussen, who has extensive experience in humanitarian relief operations worldwide, said in his report to Wells and Hight, that "the most reliable form of communication between Bandeh Aceh and Jakarta was [Short Message Service] messaging on cell phones." Rasmussen added, "GSM phones served everyone present as a lowest-common-denominator communications backbone, and the cost of SMS messaging was close to nothing."
Army Brig. Gen. Randolph Strong, director of command, control, communications and computer systems at Pacific Command, viewed the networks and systems setup for Operation Unified Assistance as an example of how Pacific Command units can rapidly meet the demands of a crisis. Monti and Rasmussen agreed.
But, as Rasmussen said in his report to Wells, networks set up for humanitarian operations "should include pure civilian communications," and unclassified U.S. military systems need to be opened to the greatest extent possible to United Nations, USAID and NGO partners.