Airlift: a distraction?

As an aviation-related blog, naturally the Company focuses its attention on the aerial aspects of the relief effort in Haiti.  But airlift has some inherent limitations, chief among them being that even the very largest aircraft have tiny payload capacities when compared to ships.  In typical logistics doctrine, airlift happens first because it can reach an affected area in hours, whereas sealift takes days (or sometimes weeks).  But as the conflict or crisis drags on, airlift’s priority wanes once sealift is established.  Writing at the US Naval Institute blog, author Galrahn (who also writes at Information Dissemination) is anxious to see sealift get the attention it deserves.  While I don’t necessarily agree with his characterisation of USAF’s effort, it’s an interesting read.  And it is inarguable that sealift’s throughput and cost effectiveness is an order of magnitude greater than airlift; airlift’s primary advantages have always been speed and flexibility, not volume.

Todd H. Guggisberg, Assistant Professor, Department of Logistics and Resource Operations (DLRO) US Army Command and General Staff College emailed me today with an important observation.

As a retired career Army logistics officer, I am following the events closely.  Understanding what it means to feed/water/shelter 3 million people is difficult for most Americans.  One of my logistics students did a quick estimate and came up with a requirement for 2,000 cargo trucks per day to supply ONE humanitarian ration to 3 million people per day….and rations are easy compared to water.

That might explain why there has been a policy change regarding the danger of airdropping relief supplies. Are things getting critical? Probably more than most Americans probably realize.

One C-17 airdrop represents ~30,000 rations (usually divided between humanitarian rations and bottled water), and we would need to conduct more than 100 C-17 airdrops per day and equally distribute those rations just to get just 1 bottle of water or 1 humanitarian ration to each of the 3 million people the UN says are in need in Haiti today. The SOUTHCOM focus to date on the one runway airfield is a distraction, by no fuzzy math is it possible for ~180 planes around the world to meet the demand of the Haiti catastrophe

— galrahn.  “Obama’s Public Diplomacy From Haiti Wears Combat Boots.”  US Naval Institute blog, 19 January 2010.

I am sure the US Navy (and allied navies) are working hard at opening up critical port facilities; but this bound to be somewhat camera-unsexy.  It involves a lot of planning, surveying, diving and so forth, things the land-based media can’t film easily.  It takes far less effort for a camera operator to sit at an airfield and get shots of aircraft taxiing around, while a reporter makes concerned noises.  They will continue to film the airport because that is what they know, and because more of their audience back home have flown aboard commercial aircraft into an airport (and can relate to that).  Very few audience members will have known the experience of sailing into a major seaport aboard a ro/ro bulk carrier, and helping to unload it.

Combine this with the media’s usual lack of knowledge/interest in military matters, and odds are most reporters on the ground don’t know that the next few hours in the seaports are where the battle for Haitian lives will be won or lost.

Category: Miscellania  Tags: , ,
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