WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2010 – The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is headed toward earthquake-devastated Haiti and is scheduled to arrive tomorrow to provide airlift support for the disaster-response mission, the commander of U.S. Southern Command reported today.
Meanwhile, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser said, Southcom is “seriously looking” at deploying a large-deck amphibious ship with a 2,000-member Marine expeditionary unit to provide disaster response and, if required, to help maintain security.
Several other Defense Department ships and Coast Guard vessels – from small ships to destroyers to cutters — also are headed toward Haiti, some with limited humanitarian assistance supplies and helicopters aboard.
In addition, an 82nd Airborne Division brigade and “various forces around the armed forces” have been put on alert, ready to deploy if needed to support the effort, the general said.
The actions are part of a “very robust effort” under way to ensure the military is ready to respond to requirements identified through ongoing assessments, Fraser explained during news briefings today at the Pentagon and the State Department.
“We don’t know precisely what the situation is on the ground,” he said, “so we are leaning forward to provide as much capability as quickly as we can to respond to whatever the need is when we get there.”
Meanwhile, the military is taking accountability of its own 64 troops assigned to Haiti. Most are part of the military liaison group there or support the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, Fraser said.
Fraser is leading military support to the disaster response mission, being coordinated through the U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.
His deputy military commander, Air Force Lt. Gen. P.K. “Ken” Keen, was on the ground in Haiti when the earthquake struck, and is providing the initial on-the-ground military command.
The initial thrust in the operation, Fraser said, is on assessing the situation on the ground to determine what’s needed and where, and to provide communications and command-and-control equipment needed to support relief efforts.
Toward that end, Southcom is deploying a 30-person team to Haiti this afternoon to support U.S. relief efforts.
Two Puerto Rico Air National Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft will deliver the team, made up of U.S. military engineers, operational planners, a command-and-control group and communication specialists. Once on the ground, they will work with U.S. Embassy personnel as well as Haitian, U.N. and international officials to assess the situation and facilitate follow-on U.S. military support.
“From practice, we’ve found that the assessments are critical to making sure we get the right equipment in there and make the recovery efforts and the life-supporting efforts as efficient as possible,” Fraser explained.
Meanwhile, the C-130s are transporting civilian search-and-rescue teams to Haiti, he said.
Southcom officials reported other immediate response activities:
— A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter evacuated four critically injured U.S. Embassy staff to Naval Station Guantanamo, Cuba, hospital for further treatment earlier today;
— Elements of the Air Force’s 1st Special Operations Wing will arrive in Haiti this afternoon to provide air traffic control capability and airfield operations at the Port-au-Prince airport; and
— A Navy P-3 Orion aircraft took off from Comalapa, El Salvador, early this morning to conduct an aerial reconnaissance of the area affected by the earthquake.
An important initial thrust is on getting communications and command-and-control assets into Haiti to support relief operations, Fraser told reporters. He noted that the U.N. Mission’s headquarters was severely damaged during the earthquake, with much of its communications equipment lost.
As communications and other support goes to Port-au-Prince airport to restore it to full functioning, assessment teams will also evaluate the port facilities to determine if they are operational to receive incoming aid.
The USS Carl Vinson was on a training mission when it was ordered to Haiti to support the effort. It will transit through Mayport, Fla., to take on additional humanitarian support supplies and helicopters before arriving in Haiti later tomorrow, Fraser said.
The arrival of a yet-underdetermined amphibious ship, probably a couple of days after the Vinson, will provide a broader range of capability to move supplies around and provide lift capability to support the effort, he said.
While not ruling out a deployment of the hospital ship USS Comfort, Fraser said the amphibious ship could provide much of the same medical capability.
In the meantime, all available military assets remain on the table as a clearer picture begins to emerge about what’s needed, the general said.
“We’re focused on the life-saving measures that we need to do there — the assessment, the emergency response — and then looking at what the humanitarian and disaster relief requirements are and providing international support to Haiti, to help them through this significant disaster,” he said.