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National Crises and the Utility of Naval Power: The Haiti Case Study

Commentary, 16 February 2010
Americas, Maritime Forces, UK Defence, Europe
With the recent publication of a Ministry of Defence (MoD) Green Paper and an upcoming Strategic Defence Review (SDR), the debate over future UK defence reform has been fierce. The international response to the Haitian disaster has proven to be a case study in how important high-end naval assets can be to a wide range of UK national interests.

With the recent publication of a Ministry of Defence (MoD) Green Paper and an upcoming Strategic Defence Review (SDR), the debate over future UK defence reform has been fierce. The international response to the Haitian disaster has proven to be a case study in how important high-end naval assets can be to a wide range of UK national interests.

By Dr Lee Willett, Head, Maritime Studies Programme, RUSI

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On 12 January 2010, the Caribbean island of Haiti was hit by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale.  The earthquake was one of the most severe humanitarian disasters of recent years.[1] Significantly, the extent of the devastation to Haiti's infrastructure meant that the relief operation was mounted in the first instance in large part from the sea.

The Naval Response: the United Kingdom's Contribution

The maritime contribution to the relief effort, Operation Unified Response, was led by the United States Navy, which at one point had seventeen ships, and forty-eight rotary wing and twelve fixed wing aircraft on station.[[2] This number did not appear to include other significant US assets, notably the hospital ship USNS Comfort. On 20 January, the United Kingdom's Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander announced that the UK would be sending the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) landing platform dock Largs Bay (L3006) to the region. In the immediate wake of the earthquake, the Department for International Development (DfID) had made contact with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to see what could be done together to enable the UK to respond to the disaster. Following a direct request from the United Nations, the decision to deploy Largs Bay was taken, and she sailed on 3 February. Carrying a range of equipment - including temporary shelters, supplies, heavy lift gear, vehicles, and mobile landing dock and port structures - the ship's size and versatility enabled her to deploy a broad range of assets to support the UK's contribution to the relief activity, including acting as a sea base for UK personnel working in the area. The flexibility and adaptability of maritime platforms was further demonstrated with the ship's aircraft hangar being removed prior to sailing to allow more space for cargo.

What was significant about the UK's contribution was the joined-up, cross-Government approach to the crisis - with DfID, the MoD and the Royal Navy demonstrating growing understanding and co-operation between UK Government departments - but also the fact that the deployment of a UK maritime asset was announced by the Minister responsible for international development. Noting how quickly the Royal Navy was able to mobilise, Alexander stated that Largs Bay would 'provide a lifeline of essential supplies to keep Haiti running'. The UK Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth added that 'the Royal Navy will be contributing to the vital relief effort in Haiti in the critical phase after the initial recovery operation - when new supplies will be needed. The Royal Navy will play a vital role in meeting [Haiti's] needs'.[3]

The Naval Response: the Role of Aircraft Carriers

The UK Government has recently, amid debates generated by the publication of an MoD Green Paper on issues relating to the impending Strategic Defence Review (SDR), reinforced the UK's commitment to procuring two 65,000-ton Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers as part of the joint defence effort in support of future UK national interests. At a recent media briefing, Ainsworth argued that the Government had made repeated commitments to the carriers and that for the carriers to have no relevance to future UK defence and security interests the SDR would have to take a radically different direction not currently foreseen by the MoD.[4] In the on-going, partisan debate in the UK about the SDR and the strategic and capability decisions to be taken therein, questions have continued to be asked about the utility of the Queen Elizabeth carriers. A high-end combat air capability, as provided by a carrier embarking up to thirty-six F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, would provide the UK with significant autonomous capability to support its own troops on the ground in current and future operations. However, as former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sir Jonathon Band told the RUSI Future Maritime Operations Conference in June 2009, aircraft carriers are 'more than just spare airfields'.[5] The naval contribution to the Haiti operation clearly demonstrates the extent to which a platform like an aircraft carrier can have significant relevance to a range of operations of significant national interest. A reduced number of surface warships in the Royal Navy's inventory has seen the standing task of the West Indies Guard Ship shared with duties in the South Atlantic, and with an auxiliary ship often carrying out such duties rather than a frigate or destroyer. Had the earthquake struck one of the UK's dependent territories in the Caribbean, the UK might have had a requirement to deploy a maritime force of a more significant military capability than an auxiliary vessel.[6]

While reporting from the flight deck of the US aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), stationed off the Haitian coast, BBC reporter Steve Kingston stated that:

'One of the largest warships in the world, it was from this deck that America launched the first air strikes after 9/11. Now the battle is a humanitarian one. ..... Since Friday, the Vinson's pilots have flown well over 600 missions, getting the seriously injured out of Haiti and taking food, water and medicines in.'[7]

With an area equivalent to three football pitches in size, Vinson's flight deck enabled her to act as a staging post for the relief operation. With its nineteen CH-53 Sea Stallion and SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters hopping on and off in up to 240 sorties per day, the ship ferried medical and humanitarian supplies ashore (the latter including 600,000 emergency food rations and tens of thousands of litres of water), used its hospital facilities to treat the wounded (including conducting initial triage before Comfort arrived and to provide extra hospital bed space when Comfort was too busy), and acted as an air head (including conducting command and control of the airspace) when no co-ordination facilities were available ashore.[8]

It was not only a carrier which demonstrated the flexibility of a high-end naval asset for carrying out a wider range of operations. The Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Normandy (CG-60) - a ship with battle honours including both Iraq campaigns, the Balkans and Afghanistan - had embarked additional helicopters within fifteen hours of receiving orders to deploy to the region and used these helicopters to ferry supplies and transport patients. It also acted as a refuelling point for other sea-based assets in the region. Most significantly, its air defence surveillance radar - the only one in theatre - was used as the air traffic control network to command, control and co-ordinate the airspace around Haiti and especially the arrival and departure schedule for aircraft delivering aid into Port-au-Prince airport.[9]

In the context of the debate about the UK's future naval platforms, this is once again a good example of how high-end military capability can be used for other tasks. In the case of the UK's new Daring-class Type 45 destroyers, much has been made of the utility of their state-of-the-art air defence system in providing air defence coverage for the 2012 London Olympics.[10] The UK debate about the balance between capability and numbers in future surface warships continues and, while high end capability remains essential because of its flexibility, ship numbers also remain critical. For example, during the recent cold snap in the UK, some in the media expressed alarm that the UK might run out of gas, as demand was reaching record levels and many people were unaware that the UK retains as a matter of course little more than five days of natural gas supplies on shore. Sufficient numbers in surface ships would be critical to mitigate against potential threats to the supply of critical natural resources, with such assets playing a critical role in keeping open sea lines of communication to ensure that supplies do get through.


1. The quake destroyed 250,000 homes and 30,000 other buildings, caused damage running into billions of dollars and affected upwards of 3 million people. The death toll was estimated to be up to, or even in excess of, 230,000. See, for reference: 'Red Cross: 3 Million Haitians Affected by Quake'. CBS News, 13 January 2010. Available on-line at: <> . Accessed 14 February 2010; 'Haiti Raises Earthquake's Death Toll to 230,000', Associated Press, 10 February 2010. Available on-line at . Accessed 14 February 2010; and 'Haiti Will Not Die, President Rene Preval Insists', BBC News Report, 10 February 2010. Available on-line at Accessed 14 February 2010.

2. United States Navy. 'US Fleet Forces Commander Provides Update on Navy Contributions to Haiti Relief Efforts.' Available on-line at . Accessed 14 February 2010.

3. For reference on this section, see Ministry of Defence: 'RFA Ship to Deploy to Haiti Loaded with Aid'. 20 January 2010. Available on-line at: <> ; 'RFA LARGS BAY Ready for Haiti Relief Mission'. 2 February 2010. Available on-line at <> . Both accessed 9 February 2010.

4. Ainsworth. Green Paper press briefing. MoD, 3 February 2010.

5. Admiral Sir Jonathon Band GCB ADC. Then First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff. Keynote address to RUSI Future Maritime Operations Conference, 3-4 June 2009.

6. Britain's Overseas Territories in the Caribbean are: Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

7. BBC News. 'Haiti Relief: On Board the USS Carl Vinson'. 19 January 2010. Available on-line at: . Accessed 20 January 2010.

8. For reference, see: Christen N McCluney. 'USS Carl Vinson Sailors Support Haiti Mission'. American Forces Press Service, 24 January 2010. Available on-line at: . Accessed 20 January 2010; Yochi Dreazen. 'US Carrier Carl Vinson Joins the Relief Effort', Wall Street Journal, 15 January 2010. Accessed 14 February 2010.

9. McCluney. 'USS Normandy Serves Dual Role in Haiti Efforts'. American Forces Press Service, 24 January 2010. Available on-line at: . Other US Navy assets in theatre included the amphibious warfare ships USS Bataan and USS Nassau and their ready groups (see Jim Garamone, 'Life and Death at Terminal Varreux'. American Forces Press Service, 24 January 2010. Available on-line at: ). Both articles accessed January 2010.

10. David Leppard. 'Super-Destroyer to Guard 2012 Games: the Navy is Set to Deploy its Most Advanced Weapons against any 9/11-style Attack', The Sunday Times, 24 May 2009. Available on-line at Accessed 14 February 2010.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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