Maritime Realities, Storms, and Discontent
By John T. Kuehn
This hand grenade focuses on a lack of knowledge about things like distance, weather at sea, maritime logistical capabilities, speeds at sea, heavy weather avoidance at sea (and actions to do so on islands far to sea). The deficit in understanding these things has led to phenomenal displays of ignorance about moving stuff in situations that have military precursors. These military and naval processes and methods have particular application in something we in the US military call humanitarian assistance operations (HAO). The repository of this lack of knowledge is not so much everyday Americans—who should not be expected to know that 12 knots equal 12 nautical miles an hour speed--but the people who should know better, our leaders, in Washington, as well as in the public media in all its various forms as they shape public perceptions of reality.
First, military precursors. As every aviator who has ever been based anywhere that typhoons and hurricanes regularly occur knows, one of the first items on our "heavy weather" checklists is to make a decision for a “fly away” of our aircraft, if possible. This is because the high winds of storms easily damage aircraft on the ground, even those presumed protected in hangar, even one “hardened” for storms of such immense power. The assumption is, the storm could knock down the hangar, so every airplane or helicopter than can fly away, should fly away. Helicopters are a special case if the island is a long way overseas from a “safe port” ---that is a safe airfield that is well out of the way of the storm’s predicted track and can be moved if that track changes to indicate that the new safe area is no longer safe. Helicopters, unless refuelable, are too short range to often do a storm "fly away."
Example, this occurred in 1985 to the author when a typhoon headed for Guam. We flew the EP-3 and EA-3 aircraft –the ones that could fly--that belonged to my squadron to the Philippines. The storm hit Guam but then changed track and headed toward Luzon in the Philippines, so we then flew the aircraft up to US air stations in Japan. The distances were immense. 2100 nautical miles to the Philippines and another 2200 nautical miles to Atsugi air station in Japan. Obviously helicopters cannot fly these distances unless there is a ship they can “lily pad” on to get away. So helicopters, the most useful air platforms post-storm are often themselves at most risk and likely to be damaged beyond use if not removed from an island on a storm track. This is NOT hidden knowledge.
Similarly for ships. They go to sea when a storm threatens their safe harbor because the chances of sustaining damage in-port are much higher than if they “put to sea.” And where do they go? As far from the storm as they can steam, and they maintain as good a plot of the storm track so they can avoid the worst. But they need lots of room to do this sort of storm avoidance maneuvering. Sometimes they are not so successful, for example Admiral Halsey drove right into a typhoon after the battle of Leyte gulf, sustaining more damage from the storm than from the Japanese in 1944 (and he did it again a couple months later). The movie the _Caine Mutiny_ is based on that incident.
What this means is that the tools that could help an island with destroyed infrastructure (like Puerto Rico) the most are usually the farthest away, and possibly still at risk when the storm finally moves on. This is especially for islands removed at great distances from continental land masses with their more resilient infrastructures. So disaster relief in Miami or Houston is a very very different logicistical problem than disaster relief on an island hundreds or thousands of miles aways.
Ok. So far so good, right? Do I expect every adult American to know these sorts of things? No. Do I expect that those in power, in the media to at least know WHO to ask about these things and get smart on them to? Yes. Most of the corporate knowledge is located in FEMA and in the US Military, but often the American public gets a filtered look, if any look, at explanations for the daunting logistics of dealing with overseas and maritime disaster operations like the one currently underway in Puerto Rico. DOD and FEMA, in particular have contingency plans for these sorts of things and are very much the professionals. This is not their first rodeo. The first assumption should be that they know what they are doing. Will mistakes be made? They always are, these are human organizations, but ships move only so fast, that is the real key to the problems here. Ships do not move quickly, 12-15 knots is probably the best planning factor. On top of this if the storm hits (or a previous storm hit) the ports from where relief might come (like Miami) then this adds even more delays to these problems. Most of the US Navy capability is homeported even further north, most of it in Virginia, and often the ships do not have their air --to include helicopters--aboard if they are in port for any length of time. These must fly in from other places. So it might take days to get the ships out of their home ports and then weeks to get them to the disaster location in a case like Puerto Rico. This is why contracting third parties, although more expensive, might be the better alternative to save lives…because they are closer in places like Panama, Columbia, Jamaica, etc.
But Americans add another sin to their, often, willful ignorance of these matters, they add an impatience that is in part born from this ignorance. And those who should be helping them understand, the press, our leaders who go on television and the web, often add their own biases and impatience to the mix.
So what does any of this have to do with war? Well, think of it this way, studying war, its friction, its uncertainty, its dangers, its requirements for intellectual as well as physical effort (and patience is an intellectual virtue), its planning, is a valuable way to understand storms and disaster relief after them.
Think of storms as war, and all these problems associated with the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, etc are the same problems one finds in war…but to the case of Puerto Rico an understanding of naval warfare would help because it adds the tyranny of oceanic distances to the mix of uncertainty and friction caused by such large scale violent events. Or talking perhaps to someone who understands these things is worth considering.
So studying war, broadly and not just on land, has application for the problems of today. And might lead to a more civilized and respectful discourse on how to ameliorate these very difficult problems that cause so much human suffering. In other words, quit complaining and start learning, especially if you have a public pulpit.