Politics & Policy

Angels With Rotary Wings

The U.S. Navy is saving lives in the wake of the Indian Ocean's deadly tsunami.

Almost before the crushing waters had receded from the Indian Ocean’s myriad shorelines, the 5,000 sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln were hauling line and firing-up its twin nuclear reactors in a mad dash to get their ship underway. Horrific reports were coming over the wire, followed by an immediate change in the Lincoln’s orders.

Thousands of lives had been lost in the December 26 tsunami that struck Indonesia and its neighbors, and the Lincoln’s crew–and those of its accompanying ships–knew that many more would perish unless they could get there in time to stem the rising death toll.

Pledges of money and rebuilding efforts are one thing. Immediate rescue and relief are another. And no force on earth was more capable of a real-time comprehensive response to such a disaster than the U.S. Navy.

Within hours, damage assessment teams were racing to Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. And the Lincoln’s Carrier Strike Group (in port at Hong Kong at the time of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami) was proceeding to Indonesia at “best speed.” It was soon followed by the USS Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Group (on-station just south of Guam).

Within days, nearly 50 helicopters were lifting off the decks of the first American battle group and thundering toward the stricken beaches. Around the clock, aircraft were up and U.S. ships were constantly moving in.

Today, nearly 100 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps helicopters are making the ship-to-shore circuit, delivering much needed supplies and evacuating the sickest and the most gravely injured. It is a massive U.S. Naval effort with the Lincoln as the centerpiece and the Richard as her right arm.

“No one on earth can provide this kind of thing with the kind of speed and numbers we can,” Capt. Dave Logsdon, a combat carrier pilot who currently serves as commander of the University of South Carolina’s Naval ROTC unit, says. “As horrible as it is for the victims on the ground, they will never forget what they must have felt when they first saw those relief helicopters coming in with the words ‘United States’ emblazoned on the side.”

Commander Ed Buclatin, spokesman for U.S. Naval Air Forces (totally some 4,000 aircraft), agrees. From his office at the U.S. Naval Base in San Diego, he tells NRO, “Obviously, our mission out there is to keep the sea lanes open. But in this case, the Abraham Lincoln changed its plans, was underway within hours and on-scene within days, which is a phenomenal task.”

According to Buclatin, the Lincoln could not have been better prepared for the new mission. “The Lincoln was deployed with two helicopter squadrons, which is the first time we’ve ever done that,” he says. “Typically, we deploy with one. But this was a test-bed deployment for trying out the capability of two squadrons: One for anti-submarine warfare, the other for anti-surface warfare. In the wake of this terrible disaster, we couldn’t have asked for a better time to conduct this two-squadron test.”

In recent days pundits have questioned whether or not such a massive rescue-and-relief operation might have left a hole in America’s defense posture in the western Pacific, and to a greater degree, globally. On the reverse, some have questioned whether current U.S. deployments in the war on terror have reduced humanitarian-assistance capabilities like those currently being rendered in the Indian Ocean.

At a Pentagon brief on Tuesday, Admiral Thomas B. Fargo–commander of all U.S. land, sea, and air forces in the Pacific and Indian Oceans–was asked specifically if relief operations might be limited because of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“None whatsoever,” he said. “We had these assets in the Pacific, and we’re employing them for an array of other operations. And you know we have a certain capacity that we always maintain in the Pacific. So we haven’t had to detriment those capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Saving lives is not new to the Abraham Lincoln, its accompanying vessels, or the Navy as a whole. According to Adm. Fargo, “We knew from our recent disaster response in the Philippines and our 1991 response to the cyclonic flooding in Bangladesh that immediate needs were going to be drinking water and a shelter and food and medical support. A key lesson from all of these events was the value of helicopter vertical lift.”

But it’s not just Naval aviators and aircrews who are saving lives. Other critical personnel include Navy doctors and medical corpsmen, rescue swimmers, cooks, bakers, firemen, engineers, deck hands, chaplains, anyone else who serves the various crews and helps sail the ships, as well as combat Marines now ashore, but not to fight.

Little known and often under-appreciated technologies are also saving lives. The Lincoln, for instance, is taking raw seawater and reprocessing it into some 400,000 gallons of fresh water for the victims ashore every day. In Michelle Malkin’s recent tribute to the Lincoln, she writes, “Sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln have reportedly even stopped taking showers to make every last drop of fresh water available to tsunami survivors for drinking.”

The USS Abraham Lincoln–a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier named for the 16th president of the United States–is best known as the ship which President George W. Bush landed on and announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq in May 2003. The ship has conducted a number of combat and humanitarian assistance operations since her commissioning on Veterans Day, 1989.

The USS Bonhomme Richard–an amphibious assault ship and namesake of Commodore John Paul Jones’s famous frigate in the American Revolution–is manned by over 1,100 sailors and capable of transporting nearly 1,900 Marines, along with their landing (sea) craft, helicopters, and Harrier jump-jets.

Both the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Bonhomme Richard are the flagships of their respective “groups,” which include cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and a variety of supporting vessels.

On Wednesday, the USNS Mercy set sail for the Indian Ocean. Another unique symbol of U.S. power, ingenuity, and humanity; the Mercy is a floating hospital (converted from a tanker) with 12 fully equipped operating rooms, several labs, radiological service capabilities, a cat scan, a pharmacy, and 1,000 hospital beds.

Only in–and from–America.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...


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