The U.S. military is rushing additional aid to South and Southeast Asia to help people affected by the earthquake and tsunami 10 days ago. New deployments will double the number of U.S. helicopters available to deliver supplies, add several Navy ships with a variety of relief capabilities and may include entire Air Force field hospitals.
The military says it has already committed more than 13,000 troops to the effort, and 14 ships, with more on the way, including a new high-speed vessel being dispatched from Guam. The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Tom Fargo, said Tuesday the newly dispatched forces will roughly double the number of helicopters in the effort to about 90. He says experience with other disasters indicates that helicopters are the most important asset the military can provide. And he says other nations, including Singapore and India, are sending helicopters, too.
"It's fair to say that the Southeast Asia earthquakes and follow-on tsunami of Sunday, 26 December will necessitate one of the most complex humanitarian disaster relief efforts of recent history," he said.
Admiral Fargo says the U.S. military contribution will also include Marine engineering units with the technology to purify water, restore bridges and provide medical care, among other services. He says the Navy may also deploy its 1,000-bed hospital ship, the USS Mercy, and may add special capabilities to it, including civilian medical specialists to handle the type of injuries people are suffering in the tsunami area.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Dr. William Winkenwerder, says part of the goal is to deal with an expected wave of secondary health problems following the disaster, including many serious contagious diseases. But he says there has been no such outbreak so far.
Still, Dr. Winkenwerder says the U.S. Air Force is even prepared to dispatch fully-equipped field hospitals if there is a need.
"We would be prepared to provide several - and by that I mean four, five, six, eight - field hospitals, if needed. We have that type of capability that can be flown in or shipped in relatively quickly," said Dr. Winkenwerder.
Officials say a 25-bed U.S. Air Force hospital is already loaded on two transport planes in Japan and could be dispatched to the tsunami region immediately, as soon as a destination is designated. The officials say the hospitals come complete with ambulances, and can be staffed by U.S. or local health care providers, or both.
Dr. Winkenwerder says there is an agreement with the United Nations and the World Health Organization to coordinate aid efforts, with a joint relief headquarters in Thailand. The senior Pentagon health official says the one thing all nations in the area have requested is more help in identifying and disposing of bodies. He says the U.S. military has already sent two such teams to the region, and will add up to 150 more experts in the coming days.
The U.S. Pacific commander, Admiral Fargo, says although the scope of this disaster is beyond any specific plans the military has made, his forces are very familiar with this type of relief mission, and have established standard procedures for cooperating with the armies and governments in nearly all the countries in the region, including Indonesia.
"The American taxpayers made an investment in very solid and robust military capability that has a wide range of uses. And we're demonstrating the value of that investment today," said Admiral Fargo.
Admiral Fargo says he has seen no evidence that conflicts in some of the countries, particularly Sri Lanka and Indonesia, have hurt relief efforts. In fact, he said the disaster may help ease the conflicts.
"We haven't seen it as a problem in terms of aid distribution or relief,” he noted. “And I would hope that this catastrophe, as awful as it is, might provide an opportunity for these different factions to move closer together."
Admiral Fargo says the extensive U.S. military effort is only part of the overall U.S. effort.
On Tuesday, President Bush spoke to his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who are leading a U.S. delegation to the tsunami region to assess the needs. White House spokesman Scott McClellan says they spoke about coordination between the civilian and military aspects of the relief effort, and also the coordination among the many nations involved.
"The president and Secretary Powell discussed the importance of developing a long-term strategy for reconstruction and recovery,” Mr. McClellan. “The two delegation heads also reported about the strong capabilities that the governments of India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand have in place to effectively manage the response and relief in those countries. They discussed the challenges and difficulties facing Aceh in Indonesia. The level of destruction there is beyond comprehension."