The huge U.S. relief operation in the Indian Ocean carries risks for the Pentagon but also rewards, employing combat resources at a time the armed forces are stretched thin, but putting forth an image of an American military that is as caring and efficient in saving lives as it is violent and efficient in slaying adversaries.
Senior Pentagon and military officials say the Defense Department carefully balanced its strategic needs with the imperative to open up logistical bottlenecks and begin ferrying water, food, medical supplies and shelter in one of the most challenging relief operations of the past 50 years.
The latest estimates indicate that the Pentagon's portion of the relief effort is costing about $5.6-million per day, and that the military already has spent $40-million on the mission, Defense Department officials said Friday. Total U.S. combat assets _ including ships and personnel _ now ordered into the region for tsunami relief are valued at $20-billion.
In the hours after the tsunami leveled coastal villages across the Indian Ocean, killing more than 150,000 and leaving millions displaced, the Bush administration began crunching numbers to calculate relief donations. But a very different kind of risk analysis was under way deep inside the Pentagon and at the military's Pacific Command in Hawaii, these officials said.
Senior military planners calculated in just a few hours how much combat power would have to be preserved for commanders in the Pacific to maintain a credible deterrent against North Korea, and even China, while sending relief assistance.
Senior officers said the most important discussion was with Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea.
"In this particular case, we talked about Korea in some depth," said Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific. "We did a solid risk assessment, and I am comfortable with our posture."
Although large military commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the U.S. forces worldwide, Pentagon and Pacific command planners realized there was an unintended benefit, especially in the decision to move heavy bombers from home bases in the United States to Asia, within easy striking distance of North Korea. This step was taken to maintain a strong deterrent in the Pacific as U.S. military forces flowed toward Iraq.
These changes to the traditional force posture in the region have allowed the commitment of a large military contingent to the aid mission. As of Friday, about 13,000 U.S. military personnel, nearly 20 warships and about 90 aircraft were assigned to the relief effort, said Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman, commander of U.S. military efforts for the relief mission.
While the military has focused on fighting wars, the relief mission showed how swiftly it can shift missions and provide, on a large scale, such mundane but lifesaving capabilities as global transportation, cargo handling, water purification and emergency medical care.
The aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, for example, carries as much municipal infrastructure in the Indian Ocean as many American cities.
Officers and enlisted personnel involved in the mission say they are grateful for the change of pace and proud of the relief mission, which presents the world with an image of a U.S. military saving lives of tsunami victims in countries where the United States has strong military ties, and in some where it has few.
Brig. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, commander of the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, the largest air base in the Pacific, said the military's relief effort symbolized the full range of the U.S. armed services' engagement.
"It shows we are here for more than just the defense of Japan, an ally," he said. "We are here for other missions, the commitment to the defense of Korea, humanitarian missions, disaster relief."
Speaking at the military's relief command post set up at Utapao, Thailand, he expressed a desire that the military's efforts at tsunami relief would carry a powerful message around the world.
"I would hope that people would see the huge effort that we have put forth to mobilize almost 14,000 service men and women, the number of aircraft we have put into this," he said. "The generosity of the American government and people would countermand the perceptions they may have had."
BY THE NUMBERS
U.S. warships assigned to the relief effort
U.S. aircraft assigned
Approximate number of U.S. military personnel assigned
Per day cost of Pentagon's portion of the relief effort
Amount the military has spent so far
Value of U.S. combat assets _ including ships and personnel _ now ordered into the region for relief