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Disaster Relief

Building Disaster Response Capacity Across the Civil-Military Spectrum

by Vanessa Thevathasan, Aid & International Development Forum

  •  May 12, 2015
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States are increasingly contributing military assets in disaster emergencies. Many governments are gearing up for greater military role both at home and abroad to support wider civilian humanitarian responses. While the involvement of the military in relief operations is not new, discussions on civil- military approaches to disaster response have often been ad hoc. It is essential that a greater push for inter-dialogue, collaboration and coordination within the military, humanitarian and state sectors takes place to better define civil-military relations for disaster response.  The question faced by states and humanitarian organisations is no longer whether to engage the military, but rather how and when to do so.

The last few years have reflected the growing trend towards allocating military assets for disaster relief. For instance, the US military supported the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the UK military supported efforts in 2007 to tackle county-wide floods, Chinese troops were deployed in the aftermath of Sichuan province earthquake in 2008 and Pakistan saw the largest humanitarian helicopter airlift in its history after earthquakes and floods in 2005 and 2011 respectively. In the most recent disaster to hit the Asian Pacific, Australia provided military planes carrying humanitarian supplies and aid workers to assist immediate disaster relief efforts in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam hit the archipelago state in March. Moreover, the U.S. military has been a crucial player in setting up isolation and treatment centres in West Africa in the fight against Ebola (DEC 2014).

Previous research at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2008) identified six factors that lead to successful military responses:

  1. Timeliness: in particular, if the military is slow to arrive and start operating this can actually impede response by preventing or delaying the deployment of civilian alternatives.
  2. The appropriateness of the assets deployed, both in terms of how well these assets meet the needs of a specific situation and how suitable they are for local cultural and political contexts.
  3. Efficiency, namely how easily military assets can be used on the ground and also how well military assets are co-ordinated with the wider international relief effort.
  4. The ‘absorptive capacity’ of the host country in other words, how easily the country can accommodate a large influx of assets and people, and the ability of the country’s own disaster management institutions to co-ordinate and effectively use external assistance.
  5. Co-ordination between the different organisations (military, civilian government, international organisations and non-government) involved in the relief effort, including through information sharing and achieving “harmony” between different organisational cultures.
  6. Developing effective funding mechanisms for using military assets, which are usually more expensive than civilian assets, so that their use is not constrained and does not place a burden on the contributing or victim countries. This could become a greater challenge given the economic crisis affecting many countries at the moment.

Several guidelines have emerged over the years to cater for the need to regulate military responses to disasters. The Guidelines on the Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defence Assets in Disaster Relief (2009), known as the Oslo Guidelines, states that reverting to foreign military assets must be the last resort whilst recognising that domestic military assets may often be the first resort in some countries due to lack of capacity to respond in certain areas. The guidelines reinforce that the primary responsibility remains with the state for providing humanitarian assistance within its jurisdiction, further stating that any use of foreign military assets must complement rather than surpass existing humanitarian relief mechanisms. The principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD principles 2003) affirm ‘the primary position of civilian organisations in implementing humanitarian action’, and require states to ensure that military assistance is ‘in conformity with international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles, and recognises the leading role of humanitarian organisations’.

The GHD principles, now indorsed by 41 donating countries, include reference to:

  • principled humanitarian action;
  • respect for and promotion of international humanitarian law;
  • the importance of needs based assistance;
  • accountability to affected populations;
  • predictable humanitarian funding;
  • coherence of donor action;
  • primacy of civilian response;
  • support to multilateral coordinated humanitarian action

Defining the role of the military is also important given how in some states the civilian administration to deal with disasters is often underdeveloped and only partially operational. In such situations states will continue to depend on armed forces for disaster response intervention. Generally, the military respond to disasters as part of their mandate to aid civil authorities during times of crisis, but with the understanding that such activities remain premised on the principle of ‘last to enter and first to leave.’ However, in post-disaster operations, the military are often the first to enter and the last to leave. In countries like India and Pakistan, where there is a strong history of deploying military assets to disasters zones, it becomes imperative that military assistance is used to bolster the capacity of civilian authorities and other disaster response forces to build greater self-reliance and reduce dependence on military assets. In Pakistan, the military and humanitarian sector established a Memorandum of Understanding (2010) that later formed the basis of civil-military relations during the 2011 floods that devastated the region. Additionally, the UN Civil Military Coordination (2006) facilitates dialogue and interaction between civilian and military actors, essential to protect and promote humanitarian principles, avoid competition, minimize inconsistency and, when appropriate, pursue common goals. In all, military efforts must not undermine local capacity or state authority to respond effectively to disasters.

The role of the military in responding to natural disasters within conflict zones will undoubtedly complicate operations, given the history of suspicion and tension with foreign military in complex environments. Following landslides in Afghanistan (2014) and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar (2008), foreign military involvement was often perceived as annexed to wider political and military objectives. Further major obstacles include, different priorities of humanitarian and military actors, questions over information-sharing, and the diversity of issues within the humanitarian sector, not least engagement with security actors and what this means for principles on neutrality and independence.

Coordination and communication between the civilian humanitarian sector and the military has historically been extremely challenging to overcome. Barriers include differences in cultures, priorities and operating modes between military and civilian staff that directly impacts information coordination, which itself contributes to the success or failure of relief operations. Yet, as John Holmes, former UN Under-Secretary General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator (2007-2010), states: “[C]oordination between civilian and military actors is essential during an emergency response. The increasing numbers and scale of humanitarian emergencies, in both natural disaster and conflict settings, has led to more situations where military forces and civilian relief agencies are operating in the same environment.”  Greater effort must be made to accustom the military and humanitarian sector to their different operational cultures.

Added to this mix, is the consideration that disaster relief operations have become highly complex and sophisticated exercises in international cooperation, which necessitate linking together and leveraging the multiple assets and skills from military units, humanitarian agencies, international organisations, NGOs and the private sector. This will require effecting joint, combined and inter-departmental planning to deliver unity of response.   Moreover, in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, and Ebola crisis (2014) even more civilian and military bodies are calling for a review of civilian-military relations. This includes making available a standardised system for collaboration during disaster-relief operations, the adoption of common platform for information sharing and setting up working groups to build a framework for military support for civilian-led disaster relief operations. Commenting on the US military response in Haiti following the earthquake in 2005, Paul Stockton, former homeland defence and Americas' security affairs assistant secretary of defence, stated:"[W]hen the earthquake struck, there were plenty of partner nations who stepped up to the plate, eager to provide assistance," he explained. "The problem was we didn't have a database of the capabilities specific countries could bring to the fight. And we had no way to match up Haiti's most important requirements with the kinds of assistance that nations were able to provide." A clear, effective and coordinated response capability is needed for initial disaster response interventions to positively influence post-recovery efforts. When coordination works fluidly, countries struck by natural disasters are better able to plan for and coordinate the influx of international help, prioritise their own urgent needs, and allow those providing assistance to match these needs with international assistance. 

The operational activities of the military will increasingly have to step up to new challenges caused by disasters, including building capabilities for situational awareness to urban risks; containing health effects of natural disasters through appropriate detection, preparation and vaccination capabilities and training for “hybrid disasters”, as took place in Japan 2011 with the earthquake-tsunami- nuclear catastrophe.

Japan’s “hybrid-disaster” is a case in point in how successful military assistance to relief efforts can lead to a rethinking of the role of the military in society. Japan’s Self Defence Forces deployed 107,000 of its 230,000 troops for disaster relief and for the first time established a joint command with its ground, marine and air forces. The Japanese military coordinated these efforts with the 20,000 strong US military personal drafted to assist in the recovery. This contrasts starkly with the response to earthquake Kobe (1995), where there was great reluctance to bring in Self Defence Forces.  This time around, the rapid deployment of troops and engagement with the civilian population created broader public support for defence spending and greater encouragement towards the military’s role in disaster assistance both at home and abroad.

Building on the clear benefits of military assistance in disasters, the Civil-Military Co-operation Centre of Excellence promotes better civil-military coordination in emergencies through three core routes:

  1. Encouraging shift in mindset within the military towards recognition of the necessity of civil-military cooperation, including policy, implementation and technical level.
  2. Reviewing and revising guidelines and documents.
  3. Training and education.

Mark Phillips (RUSI 2011) highlights several practical aspects where the military can support disaster relief efforts.

  • Providing communication capabilities and to increase civil capacity (possibly through air-to-ground assets).
  • Extending the provision of logistical co-ordination and expertise.
  • Providing engineering support to help reconstitute disrupted civilian infrastructure.
  • Strategic and tactical airlift.
  • Assist in dealing with mass fatalities and casualties, including through establishing primary health infrastructure through field clinics, medical evacuation etc.

The Nepal earthquake on April 25th is yet the latest example of foreign military assistance provided by the international community to support the internal coordination of disaster response by the army. The UN’s infographic ‘Member State initial relief efforts’ (30 April 2015) shows the number of Member States offering support to Nepal. India, Nepal’s neighbour, has taken the lead in providing swift logistical support: Air Force’s first C-130J super Hercules aircraft with 285 members of the National Disaster Response Force, alongside 13 military aircraft, 3 civilian aircraft from Air India and Jet Airways and 8 helicopters. Tonnes of aid, including blankets, water, food and medicines have been air-dropped to remote communities not accessible on foot. The earthquake is a reminder of the need to better understand not just the valuable contribution military assets play in disaster response efforts, but also the particular culture and organisational approach to disaster management, one that is principally different from the humanitarian sector but can greatly benefit response efforts when the state, like Nepal, has limited resources to mount an effective crisis response.

The principle difference refers to the broader framework of humanitarian response, where military institutions stress that the utilisation of military assets is short-term and targeted to provide immediate protection and needs provision. Civilian humanitarian authorities must and should take primary responsibility to cater to the needs of returning populations, infrastructure recovery, and sustainable growth.

In the end, as the Japan earthquake response clearly shows, the benefits of acquiring military assets for disaster response can influence the success of relief and recovery efforts. Knowing how to navigate disaster diplomacy and coordinate between multiple sectors will help deliver unity of effort. It is clear that due to differences in culture and operational backgrounds, the military and civilian humanitarian sectors will not always agree. However, building greater respect for each other’s rules, skill-set, and limitations will be key to support overall disaster response.  This should take place within the wider recognition that the military will be increasingly called upon to respond to natural disasters at home and abroad.

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