Pacom Exercise Program Integrates Disaster Response Preparation
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
CAMP SMITH, Hawaii, Sep. 5, 2012 As they reach out to long-time allies and new partners alike to increase regional engagement through U.S. Pacific Command’s exercise program, officials are finding that one of the biggest enticements is a common threat: Mother Nature.
Navy personnel react to a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief scenario during the Rim of the Pacific 2012 exercise at Joint Base Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, June 20, 2012. Twenty-two nations, more than 40 ships and submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel participated in the biennial exercise. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Anderson C. Bomjardim
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The Asia-Pacific region experiences more natural disasters than any other part of the globe. It sits squarely on the earthquake-prone “Ring of Fire” and also suffers frequent cyclones, hurricanes or typhoons, floods, and even volcanic eruptions.
“It’s not a matter of if they are going to have the next disaster. It is really when,” said Army Col. Phillip Mead, director of Pacom’s Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance.
A 6.4-magnitude earthquake rattled Indonesia on Sept. 3 and the Philippines experienced two earthquakes within the past week: one yesterday in the southern Philippines at magnitude 5.6 and a 7.6-magnitude quake in the east on Aug. 31.
Pacom works with regional nations to promote disaster preparedness and build resilience; and to respond quickly and effectively should disaster strike.
One of the best ways to do that is through the exercise program, Army Col. David Parker, chief of the command’s exercise division, told American Forces Press Service.
As the Defense Department’s largest combatant command in terms of territory – an area covering 52 percent of the Earth’s surface that includes 3.6 billion people in 36 nations – Pacom also conducts the U.S. military’s largest exercise program.
Eighteen of its exercises are joint exercises approved by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a designation that assigns them a specific name and increased priority for resources and people.
“And that doesn’t include a lot of the engagements we have that also fall under the joint exercise program,” Parker said.
The focus of Pacom’s exercise program runs the gamut. “We have exercises that test and then form our contingency plans,” Parker said. “We have exercises that strictly test our joint task force capabilities. Then others focus on engagements with our allies and partners.”
As it implements DOD’s new strategic guidance that focuses heavily on the Asia-Pacific region, Pacom is working to promote the exercise program, expanding the scope of existing exercises and getting more nations to participate.
“The trend is toward more multilateral engagement,” Parker said. “We still have a lot of bilateral relationships, and we are still evolving. But we’re making a concerted effort to encourage more multilateral exercises in the region.”
Parker pointed to Cobra Gold, the largest multilateral exercise in the Asia-Pacific, as the gold standard. Cobra Gold 2012 included participants from 20 nations, and next year’s exercise is expected to include at least as many.
Meanwhile, Pacom is reaching out to new partners with a goal of initiating new exercises. Parker reported promising developments with Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mongolia and other regional partners.
As Pacom strives to exercise with more partners and promote more multilateral engagements, officials are finding disaster preparedness to be a universal common ground.
“If there is something common across the [area of responsibility], it is the awareness that there is going to be another natural disaster. So nations are focusing on that,” Mead said. “And that is why, when you develop a multilateral exercise under the humanitarian assistance disaster relief umbrella, it helps bring everyone to the table.”
As nations come to the table to address crisis response, the conversation goes into the broader issues Pacom’s exercise program addresses. “You are working on issues of interoperability. You are working on isues of ‘How do you get your communications systems to talk to each other?’ You are working on the issue of ‘How do we share information?’” Mead said.
“And all those issues that you work through during the exercise will be leveraged during a regional response to a natural disaster,” he said.
So more Pacom-sponsored exercises – from staff-level table-top exercises and command post exercises to larger-scale field training exercises involving troops on the ground as well as aircraft and ships – are focusing on disasters or including disaster scenarios.
During the recent Khaan Quest 12 exercise in earthquake-plagued Mongolia, for example, Army Brig. Gen. Mike Bridges, commander of the Alaska Army National Guard, shared Alaska’s lessons in responding to natural disasters with officials from Mongolia’s National Emergency Management Agency. Bridges encouraged his Mongolian counterparts to participate in the Vigilant Guard exercise in Alaska in 2014, which will include a simulated earthquake and tsunami with mass casualties.
Pacific Endeavor 2012 in Singapore integrated high-frequency military communications into the amateur or ham radio community that could provide a vital communications link in the event that a natural disaster took out or overran existing systems.
This year’s Rim of the Pacific exercise, which wrapped up earlier this month in Hawaii and its surrounding waters, included the first humanitarian assistance and disaster relief event in the exercise’s 31 iterations, with participants from 22 nations rehearsing crisis scenarios.
“If you talk to anyone who lives within the rim of the Pacific they will tell you it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when the next natural disaster or crisis may affect one of the countries,” said Navy Adm. Gerald R. Beaman, commander of the U.S. 3rd Fleet.
“[RIMPAC participants] are forming a team,” he said. “In the event of the next crisis or disaster, this team will have worked with each other and understand the processes that a coalition will have to go through in order to form and be able to accomplish whatever mission we may be asked to do."
To add realism during exercises, Pacom’s Center of Excellence staff, which offers a unique capability within the Defense Department, often serves as the “white cell.” Its members inject disaster scenarios into the play, Mead said, forcing staffs to go through a deliberate decision-making process they would use in a real-life humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission.
As staffs respond, they’re encouraged to go by the book --specifically, the multinational standard operating procedures that 31 Asia-Pacific nations have agreed to -- so they can provide a unified, coordinated response.
Parker called those SOPs, which the signatories review annually to ensure they are current, a big step toward in the right direction.
“That document is probably one of the biggest things we have to promote interoperability. It spells out the processes and procedures that these nations may use if we ever engage with each other in a humanitarian assistance disaster response situation or other operations other than war,” he said.
“So when we have a crisis situation, or nations have to come together and operate together, they have already established the processes they are going to use to tackle that crisis – whether it is [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief] or other small-scale events,” Parker said. “The procedures are already established, and that is going to jump-start the process.”
That, he said, will help reduce suffering and save lives.
As Pacom’s exercise program helps U.S. and partner nations prepare for future disasters, it also provides a forum for them to review lessons learned from past responses.
During Cobra Gold 12, for example, leaders from the participating nations shared expertise and lessons from Operation Tomadachi in Japan and flood relief conducted last year in Thailand.
“This is an ongoing learning process, but it’s a critical one,” Parker said. “As we work with many of our partners and friends in the region, humanitarian assistance and disaster response is the most likely scenario that we are going to execute.”