Pacific Partnership 2011 to Test Disaster Response Capabilities


By Donna Miles

U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) is preparing to launch an interagency, international mission, March 21, aimed at providing a fast, coordinated response should disaster strike the Pacific Ocean region.

Pacific Partnership 2011 will kick off when the amphibious transport dock ship USS Cleveland leaves its San Diego port to become the lead U.S. vessel during a five-month mission through Oceania, said Navy Capt. Jesse A. Wilson Jr., the mission commander and commander, Destroyer Squadron 23.

The participants, a mix of about 600 military, interagency and non-governmental organizational medical professionals and engineers hailing from several nations, will visit Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua-New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Federated States of Micronesia, Wilson said.

PACOM, working through U.S. Pacific Fleet, launched the Pacific Partnership initiative in 2005 after a devastating December 2004 tsunami struck the region. The annual mission focuses on reinforcing relationships formed through the tsunami response and laying groundwork to ensure future preparedness, Wilson said.

Through a variety of humanitarian and civic assistance projects, Pacific Partnership provides a framework for the United States to work collaboratively with its international, interagency and non-governmental partners to conduct an effective humanitarian assistance and disaster relief response, he said.

Militarily, Pacific Partnership 2011 will be heavily Navy, but it also will include a Marine Corps contingent to operate vehicles and equipment, and Army and Air Force representatives.

The interagency participation will include a State Department representative to join Wilson aboard USS Cleveland for the entire mission, and U.S. Agency for International Development officials, as well as their international counterparts, to operate primarily ashore.

More than a dozen non-governmental organizations also will contribute manpower and expertise.

“This is more than a whole-of-government approach,” Wilson said. “It’s the whole of several governments (and their NGOs) to make sure we are all working in synch to leverage all the efforts we are doing.”

The U.S. Coast Guard also will participate in the exercise for the first time, with two cutters supporting various phases of the overall mission. USCGC Jarvis will join the operations in Tonga, and USCGC Sequoia, in Micronesia.

In addition, Australia will contribute two landing craft ships; Japan, a maritime self-defense force vessel; and New Zealand, the amphibious sealift ship HMNZS Canterbury, that is currently supporting the hurricane response in Christchurch.

A French helicopter crew will be embarked on board Canterbury, and Canada, Singapore and Spain will deploy teams to support Pacific Partnership 2011.

Last year, when the hospital ship USNS Mercy conducted Pacific Partnership 2011, the emphasis was on conducting surgeries and other advanced medical procedures, many of them aboard ship. But this year, with a large-deck amphibious ship serving as the primary platform; medical, dental, veterinary, veterinary and engineering services will be provided ashore.

“We are more focused on getting our doctors ashore, working side by side with host-nation doctors, exchanging expertise and new ideas, repairing biomedical equipment and getting to where we can service remote areas and underserved populations in those countries,” Wilson said.

Navy Seabees also will be key to the mission, partnering with host-nation officials and NGOs to renovate schools and build medical clinics. At one location, they’ll repair broken toilets so children no longer have to go home to use a bathroom. At another stop, they will improve drainage to stop flooding at a site designated as an evacuation point during a natural disaster.

“Our engineers do a lot to improve, not only the level of services that can be provided in the country, but also the quality of life of the people,” Wilson said.

Through these projects and activities, participants in Pacific Partnership will work with host-country officials to identify how they could contribute to that country’s disaster-response capabilities.

“We can familiarize ourselves with that construct and determine who the key players are, how do we communicate, what capability do they have, and what capability would we need to bring in case there was an emergency?” Wilson said. “And to the greatest extent that we can do that, it will serve us in the event of a real disaster.

“It increases our interoperability, which in the end, serves to lessen the pain and suffering that would happen after a disaster,” he said.

As they join together this year for the first time for Pacific Partnership, the three U.S. maritime services – the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard – will promote three of the six core competencies embodied in their collective maritime strategy, Wilson said.

“One of them is humanitarian assistance and disaster response,” he said. “And that is not a buzzword. It is not something we do when we feel like it. It is part of our mission.”

The mission also provides forward presence and engagement.

“We are a global force for good,” Wilson said. “That is our motto. And to do that, you need to be out and about and available and engaging with your partners and host nations.”

Wilson cited the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010. Sailors aboard the USS Higgins (DDG 76), returning to San Diego from an around-the-world deployment, were the first responders to arrive on the scene to bring relief to the victims.

“To be a first responder, just like a beat cop on the street or that paramedic that shows up, you have to be out and you have to be about,” Wilson said. “And that is what the Navy is. We have forward presence. And that’s what we will be providing during Pacific Partnership 2011.”

The mission promotes maritime security, a third tenet of the maritime strategy.

“Through Pacific Partnership, we are increasing our ability to operate with other host-nation navies and organizations,” Wilson said. “What we have found is, the more you enhance and develop a partnership, an alliance, a friendship, the better you can unite and work together for a host of things.”

As it bolsters long-standing relationships and builds new ones, Pacific Partnership demonstrates U.S. commitment to the Pacific region, Wilson said.

“We saw the gratitude for the assistance we provided [following the 2004 tsunami], and how that went a long way in developing long-lasting partnerships, relationships and friendships,” he said. “So we continue to build those relationships [and] those partnerships so we can more effectively, in a collective manner, address any kind of natural or man-made disaster that could happen in the region.”

During the past five years, Pacific Partnership has provided medical, dental, educational and preventive medicine services to more than 300,000 people and completed more than 130 engineering projects in 13 countries.

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