Disaster Relief and Combatant Commands

September 25, 2012 By Zach Silberman

When we think about humanitarian disasters, we tend to not think about the military’s regional combatant commanders.  During the 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti, development took the lead in providing disaster response to the country with USAID administrator Rajiv Shah serving as the “unified disaster coordinator.”  Yet after a tsunami or earthquake it is often the military with the capacity to move supplies the fastest to hard hit areas in the regions of the world where they operate.  Today, there is a lively debate about the military’s role in responding to disasters and concerns of the military taking on roles beyond its core missions.

The military’s six geographic combatant commands often speak of their work as in support of civilian agencies during humanitarian relief response in their region. U.S. Southern Command’s mission statement states that its “humanitarian assistance program complements, but does not duplicate or replace, the work of other U.S. government agencies that provide foreign assistance.” In response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, SOUTHCOM played a supportive role in providing a quick response to the earthquake victims, in what SOUTHCOM commander General Douglas Fraser described as being “focused really on the logistics support for humanitarian assistance.”  Recently, former SOUTHCOM and current U.S. European Command commander Admiral James Stavridis argued that, “We work very hard to support the AID programs. We work very hard to support State Department programs…The idea is not hard power or just soft power. It’s finding that dial and setting it right so that we can support the development community.”

Yet the military has begun to play a role beyond providing logistical support, such as researching new methods for better response.  Recently, the Defense Department highlighted the work of the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, housed in Hawaii under U.S. Pacific Command, which promotes “collective civilian and military preparedness in a whole-of-government effort to mitigate and more quickly respond to and recover from natural and man-made disasters.”  While the center directly reports to PACOM, it supports all combatant commands and serves as an entity to “educate, train, conduct research, and assist in international disaster preparedness” and “identify decisive points for intervention and partner with like-minded entities to be a catalyst for positive change and create synergy to increase the magnitude of change.”

These efforts have been extended to joint partnerships with civilians and the private sectors.  PACOM recently formed a partnership with USAID, U.S. businesses and NGOs to coordinate responses to humanitarian disasters. Admiral Stavridis stated, “I believe that today, the next ‘big thing’ is public-private collaboration…At U.S. European Command we are also engaging the private sector – corporations as well as non-profit enterprises, non-governmental entities and universities.”

Even though combatant commanders are on record in agreement with their “support” role in disaster response, there continue to be challenges over the role of the military in development efforts that are traditionally led by civilian agencies.  The role of the military in disaster relief will continue to be a delicate balance between their capacity to offer logistical support that the State Department and USAID lack and initiatives that take the military beyond their core competencies.  Successful coordination between the military and the civilian agencies on humanitarian relief-with the civilians in the lead and the military in a support role-can certainly enhance our abilities to respond to man-made disasters that devastate the world.