Tsunami! Information Sharing in the Wake
On December 26, 2004, an earthquake of 9.0
magnitude jolted the Banda Aceh region on Indonesia's Sumatra Island.
The quake generated a tsunami that exploded across the Indian Ocean
at 500 miles per hour. The tidal surge brought death and destruction
to Banda Aceh and India's Nicobar Islands 16 minutes after the quake.
Within 90 minutes, the tsunami engulfed Sri Lanka's coastal areas,
and within 7 hours its waves crashed into the far shores of Somalia.
The ensuing catastrophe seized the attention of the world. Over
295,000 people died and 5 million were left homeless.
U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) rapidly responded
to this humanitarian disaster by initiating Operation Unified Assistance.
The command deployed 25 ships, 45 fixed-wing aircraft, 57 helicopters,
and 16,000 personnel to assist stricken countries. This force delivered
over 16 million pounds of supplies and flew helicopter operations
totaling over 4,000 hours. It also employed a unique command and
control structure. Commander, PACOM, initially designated the commanding
general of 3d Marine Expeditionary Force as commander of Joint Task
Force-536. Within days, it became apparent that a traditional military
command structure was not optimal for this nontraditional mission.
The ensuing operation involved over 90 nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) and military forces from 18 nations. Though created as a
traditional joint task force, PACOM modified
JTF-536 after other countries such as Australia, Singapore, Russia,
France, and Malaysia joined it. At this point JTF-536, as a sole
U.S. endeavor, became Combined Support Force (CSF)-536.
The PACOM mission during Unified Assistance
was to support the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, other national forces, and
international organizations in providing disaster relief to the
governments of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other affected
nations to minimize loss of life and human suffering. This article
examines the need to embed national agency representatives within
theater intelligence commands to facilitate passing of timely and
accurate information from the agencies to the operating forces.
Although it focuses on information- sharing, which was critical
to the overall operation, this piece presents a successful model
of transforming U.S. forces to become more agile, adaptable, and
responsive to emerging crises.
Operation Unified Assistance was unique on
many levels. Diplomatic and cultural hurdles had to be overcome
before aid could be delivered to Indonesia. Suspicion of Western
military forces quickly receded as Indonesians saw the sheer magnitude
of aid and the genuine concern of other nations for their welfare.
The damage and loss of life were extreme by
any standard. The area of operation covered the entire Indian Ocean,
with the most severe destruction in remote parts of Indonesia's
Aceh region. Although the PACOM intelligence team played an important
role in the early planning and intervention of military and humanitarian
actors, the tsunami presented exceptional challenges, the first
of which was to acquire information to assess the extent of the
Weather, outdated geospatial encyclopedic data,
lack of boots on the ground, and the sheer magnitude of the devastation
hampered early efforts to assess the damage. Fortunately, 4 months
prior to the tsunami, the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific (JICPAC)
created the Contingencies Operational Intelligence Cell as a fully
manned, all-source operational intelligence capability specifically
structured to respond quickly to emerging crises within the theater.
During the initial days, the PACOM intelligence
staff, supported by JICPAC, retained operational intelligence planning,
tasking, analysis, and reporting responsibilities. Doctrine calls
for the transfer of many of these duties to the JTF (in this case,
CSF) intelligence staff once it has been established and has the
ability to manage intelligence operations. Since this was a nontraditional
crisis with limited intelligence collection available within the
combined operating area, it required several days before the CSF
was prepared to take over. In the interim, the JICPAC Contingencies
Cell performed superbly by managing the finite intelligence collection
resources, coalescing disparate information to create situational
awareness for all interested parties. At the height of the operation,
over 100 JICPAC operational intelligence specialists were involved.
The JICPAC Contingencies Cell commenced nonstop
intelligence operations within hours of the disaster. It developed
intelligence collection and production requirements. National intelligence
agency representatives embedded in the contingency team reached
back to their agencies for additional support. This interagency
partnership between the theater intelligence center and national
intelligence agencies ultimately resulted in the highly successful
delivery of information to forward-deployed forces.
Human intelligence and counterintelligence
requirements increased as the U.S. military relief operations footprint
grew in Aceh. Of critical concern was the need to discover the activities
of terrorist groups and radical factions. The JICPAC Transnational
Threats Operational Intelligence Cell, which is responsible for
analysis of terrorist activities in the theater, also worked around
the clock to assess threats and provide force protection reporting
to U.S. forces. Personnel from JICPAC also deployed to the region
to work with host nation military forces and U.S. commanders to
ensure comprehensive synchronization and flow of threat information.
Despite the JICPAC focus, it took several weeks
rather than hours or days to attain a reliable picture of the situation
on the ground. For example, traditional damage assessment methods
using airborne imagery failed to present the true nature of the
Although "order of battle" descriptions
were provided of the damage in towns and along roads, the PACOM
commander commented during a visit to Banda Aceh that the real extent
of the devastation could only be understood by seeing the damage
Operation Unified Assistance presented unusual
challenges for the intelligence team, specifically with sources.
Traditional outlets of information (military human, airborne imagery,
and technical) had limited value in illuminating the situation.
New sources had to be acquired and exploited. For example, the handful
of U.S. military representatives in affected nations was insufficient
to perform their array of crisis responsibilities, which included
developing a solid understanding of conditions on the ground. These
small offices and detachments were quickly inundated with requests
for assistance from the host nations and spent much of their initial
time in capital cities working with their counterparts and in communication
with PACOM headquarters, the Combined Support Force commander, and
U.S. national agencies. They faced the dilemma of either assessing
damage or assisting in the transit of follow-on U.S. personnel to
host nations to provide humanitarian support. As a result, PACOM
deployed additional personnel to affected nations to assist U.S.
Embassy military personnel mere days after the tsunami. The lesson
is clear: boots on the ground early in a humanitarian disaster are
critical to developing situational awareness.
Two nontraditional sources of information -open
source and commercial imagery-were critical to Operation Unified
Assistance. Open source, unclassified reporting from host nations,
NGOs, and non-Defense U.S. agencies, provided a wealth of knowledge.
In particular, USAID, the Office of Federal Disaster Assistance,
and the United Nations Joint Logistics Center maintained outstanding
home pages that provided timely, reliable information on the extent
of damage and the status of humanitarian relief activities. USAID
Disaster Assistance Response Teams included advisers, water and
sanitation experts, and field and information officers. Teams were
located in each of the affected countries and provided key on-the-ground
insights on conditions. The Center of Excellence in Disaster Management
and Humanitarian Assistance also maintained a worldclass home page.
The expertise and contacts of this latter organization (a DOD-supported
center in Hawaii) proved crucial for PACOM throughout Unified Assistance.
Commercial imagery was also a linchpin. The
importance of sharing imagery with host nations, NGOs, and other
international aid organizations was vital. Although the United States
and allied nations flew reconnaissance aircraft to assess the damage,
some of the best early assessments were provided by commercial imagery
organizations. In particular, Digital Globe furnished comprehensive
imagery coverage of the devastated areas in Banda Aceh within days
of the disaster. These first-rate products were unclassified and
were quickly shared with host nations and NGOs.
Although commercial imagery was vital to the
intelligence operation, U.S. P-3 reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters
using cameras deployed early to provide detailed photography of
key ports, towns, and lines of communication. Not only was this
unclassified and releasable intelligence valuable in ascertaining
damage, but it also helped early efforts by selected nations to
plan reconstruction of their coastal regions.
Information Flow and Cooperative Activities
Significant advances in bilateral communications
with allied nations have emerged in recent years, enabling increased
speed of delivery of information to other nations participating
in these largely unclassified military operations. Yet many difficulties
remain in disclosure of information, as not all participating nations
practice the same level of information sharing with the United States.
Therefore, in any international, interagency disaster relief operation,
considerable effort must be applied to coordinating the flow of
information among all participants.
Fortunately, the many successes during this
operation have helped overcome perceptions that intelligence support
for disaster relief has not been commensurate with customer needs.
For example, during Unified Assistance, intelligence products were
developed at the lowest possible classification to allow wide release,
facilitate maximum distribution of threat data, and share other
details with those trying to ease the suffering. These disclosures
improved trust and collaboration across civil-military and international
lines and enhanced humanitarian assistance accordingly.
As the operation progressed, the number of
nations involved and the United Nations/NGO footprint continued
to grow. PACOM found itself in the unfamiliar territory of a predominantly
unclassified environment, with 95 percent of the data used by the
intelligence professionals used being unclassified.
Intelligence professionals worked closely with
the PACOM chief information officer to develop an unclassified tsunami
Web page. As the operation continued, the command's Asia-Pacific
Area Network unclassified commercial Web site became a primary source
for NGOs, vital for involving nontraditional security partners,
who are essential in humanitarian assistance operations that cover
a broad area and cross national borders.
The unique nature of Unified Assistance created
extensive and urgent requirements for commercial satellite imagery.
With the help of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and
its imagery and geospatial analysts embedded within JICPAC, PACOM
supported operational forces, allies, and affected nations. The
command pushed the limits of the commercial imagery support infrastructure,
revealing shortfalls in the tasking and requirements management
process. For example, the end-to-end process from tasking, through
collection, to exploitation and dissemination took about 5 days.
Additional effort is needed to refine processes and shorten timelines.
The command also discovered shortfalls in the
dissemination infrastructure that inhibited the electronic distribution
of large file formats associated with geospatial products. Intelligence
teams often had to send JPG files on classified networks to regional
U.S. Embassies. The Embassy teams had to download the information
and disseminate hard copy materials to host nations. Certain large
format geospatial products had to be printed at PACOM and express-mailed
or hand-carried to affected countries because host nations, U.S.
Embassies, and deployed U.S. ships and operating bases lacked adequate
printing capabilities. One key product had to be hand-carried to
Jakarta for a high-level meeting hosted by the government of Indonesia
on the issue of long-term reconstruction of the Aceh region. This
geospatial product provided details on damaged lines of communications,
which greatly enhanced the government's ability to assess damage
and direct reconstruction. In addition, during operational intelligence
briefings at command headquarters, current intelligence products
were also provided to regional Consul Generals to facilitate international
dialogue and improve the momentum of humanitarian relief.
Operation Unified Assistance confirmed the
value of the strategic partnerships established among the governments
and international agencies in the theater, U.S. intelligence agencies,
and the operational forces.
Combined Support Force (CSF). Partnerships
were critical to leveraging finite intelligence resources throughout
the DOD/national intelligence community and avoiding duplication.
Foremost was the symbiotic relationship between the theater Joint
Intelligence Center and theater operating forces. JICPAC Operational
Intelligence Cells established constant, collaborative information
sharing with the CSF, which benefited all participating agencies
and nations. The past paradigm of producing intelligence on a daily
basis is grossly inadequate for today's operational requirements.
Constant dialogue and exchange of data by email and video teleconference
are the current media for providing near real-time intelligence.
Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center (AFMIC).
AFMIC established round-the-clock communications between its operations
center and JICPAC contingencies cells to rapidly provide medical
intelligence regarding the spread of infectious disease and vector-borne
illnesses. It also deployed liaison personnel on short notice to
the PACOM area of operations. One officer deployed to U Tapao, Thailand,
in direct support of the Combined Support Force, another officer
was embedded in the command surgeon general's office. These medical
intelligence professionals coordinated with the U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Agriculture and
ensured consistent flow of information across agencies, commands,
allied nations, and NGOs. AFMIC assisted Pacific Command with assessing
infectious disease and environmental health risks in the disaster
areas and the status of medical facilities. It also generated over
100 products, to include assessments of bed-down sites for deploying
forces and Web sites that served as onestop resources for medical
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
The embedded NGA team, operating at JICPAC and within PACOM headquarters,
was vital in coordinating engagement and delivering commercial imagery
and geospatial products daily throughout the operation. NGA output
helped the command assess the damage. As much information as possible
was shared with other government organizations, such as USAID. The
bulk of the products provided to host nations and NGOs consisted
of commercial satellite imagery to show the scope of damage and
assist PACOM in assessing priorities for emergency relief. Maps
of affected areas were updated daily. Archive commercial and national
technical means imagery was overlaid with the latest updates to
determine coastal changes.
Another product use was finding safe helicopter
landing zones and sites for displaced person camps. Unified Assistance
showed the need to embed national agency representatives with theater
intelligence commands to coordinate timely, responsive provision
of information from the agencies to the operating forces.
Defense Attaché Offices. Defense attachés
provided brilliant responsiveness and engagement with allies in
Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. At the outset of the
relief effort, offices in affected countries were passing information
to PACOM to assist in situation awareness and host nation military
coordination. At the height of the crisis, 18 nations had military
forces either on the ground or at sea. Several nations were on the
scene prior to the arrival of U.S. forces. The Indian and Pakistani
navies provided almost immediate help to Sri Lanka. In addition,
a transiting Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force task group supported
victims in Thailand. U.S. Defense attachés and Embassy country
teams coordinated early interaction with these regional partners
to deconflict American operations. As a result of the extensive
tasking on attachés, it was important to instill discipline
in communicating with Defense Attaché Offices so as not to
overwhelm their relatively small staffs with duplicative information
and requirements. The solution was creation of a dedicated, round-the-clock
Support Element Cell to act as the single point of contact for PACOM,
the country teams, and partner nation militaries.
PACOM Center of Excellence in Disaster Management
and Humanitarian Assistance. The Center of Excellence provided a
crucial capability not resident in the intelligence structure: a
standing organization of professionals networked with the necessary
information resources and capable of compiling information from
NGOs, the United Nations, and open sources to describe the situation
on the ground. This was a key enabler in Unified Assistance and
will be a center of gravity for future PACOM humanitarian assistance
and disaster relief operations. Experts from the center deployed
to the three countries hardest hit-Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia
-and provided on-site reporting and coordination. The center's Web
site provided insights not attainable by traditional intelligence
collection and exploitation.
Foreign partnerships. Together, PACOM and its
foreign partners were able to seek innovative, secure, and practical
solutions to myriad problems. This cooperation did not come without
challenges. The command had to embrace the military contributions
of other nations and coordinate with nontraditional partners, which
was accomplished by leveraging experience built through multinational
training and exercise programs. Expanding, maintaining, and improving
regional relationships are vital to dominating the battlespace.
New Operating Concepts
The success of Operation Unified Assistance
was due, in part, to the ability of the U.S. Intelligence Community
to adapt and respond with agility. The operation validated concepts
and initiatives that have been implemented in PACOM in recent months.
Operational Intelligence Cell. Foremost among
the new concepts was the establishment of the Contingencies Support
Operational Intelligence Cell within JICPAC. This all-source operational
intelligence cell was formed into a holistic structure to integrate
analysis, collection, information management, intelligence campaign
planning, targeting development, intelligence operations, and production.
The cell is composed of foreign disclosure and dissemination experts,
intelligence planners, and analysts of every discipline and representing,
for example, imagery, ground, and political functions. Within hours
of the tsunami, JICPAC commenced round-the-clock intelligence operations
to ascertain details on the magnitude of destruction, establish
situational awareness for the theater commander and his operational
forces, and lay the foundation for international and interagency
information sharing. The Contingencies Support Cell synchronized
intelligence functions and provided "onestop shopping"
for Combined Support Force operational units that required intelligence
associated with disaster relief. Equipped with advanced intelligence,
surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) management and analytic tools
and processes (for example, trend analysis, battlespace visualization,
data/content marking, collaboration, multilevel security), the cell
established a solid understanding of the most devastated areas.
ISR Battle Management Center. The ISR Battle
Management Center in PACOM provided a focal point for monitoring
and managing ISR assets employed in Unified Assistance. This cell
permitted end-to-end synchronization of theater intelligence reconnaissance
operations and was fully integrated with the command's Joint Operations
Center, the JICPAC Contingencies Support Cell, and the combined
support force commander's intelligence staff. The center, located
at command headquarters, was electronically linked to other commands
and agencies to permit near-instantaneous awareness and management
of theater and national ISR resources.
Linked with the JICPAC Operational Intelligence
Cells, the ISR Battle Management Center shared a common operating
picture and allowed collection managers to monitor national and
tactical ISR missions, adjust collection requirements, and provide
near real-time feedback to the CSF and the combatant commander.
The PACOM Collection Management Board conducted daily video teleconferences
with the Combined Support Force and components to ensure synchronized
collection operations. The need for a dedicated ISR Battle Management
Center was revalidated and is now entrenched in theater operational
doctrine. This center will become the focal point for engagement
with the joint force component commander for ISR when that national
management entity achieves initial operational capability.
It is critical that U.S. intelligence teams
learn the lessons of Operation Unified Assistance. We must be continuously
alert to nontraditional missions requiring unique intelligence support.
We must continue to strengthen partnerships across the national
intelligence community with both allies and nongovernmental organizations.
We must place national agency representatives in theater intelligence
commands to ensure that information is passed quickly from the agencies
to the operating forces. In sum, we must continue to transform our
intelligence organizations so they become more agile, adaptable,
and responsive to emerging crises.
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