Army Lessons Learned and Successful TTPs
by CPT Leonel Nascimento, Military Analyst, CALL
Hurricane Mitch Humanitarian Assistance:
JTF Commander's Initial Impressions
Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America in late
October 1998, was the Atlantic basin's fourth strongest hurricane
in recorded history with sustained winds of 180 MPH. To
augment the pre-existing Joint Task Force (JTF) operating in
Honduras, the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) formed a separate JTF in mid-November 1998,
to facilitate host-nation long-term recovery efforts within the Joint Operations Area (JOA) of El Salvador,
Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Led by an Army assistant division commander (ADC), this new JTF consisted of three
task forces (TFs), each responsible for humanitarian assistance (HA) operations in one of the countries in the JOA.
The TF commanders in the three countries were from different services -- the Army, the Air Force, and the Marines.
The JTF faced many significant challenges from the very beginning. The total JOA spanned 100,357 square
miles. The destruction in the region included 2,860 dead, over a thousand missing, and 1.04 million displaced
people, as well as 172 damaged bridges. Since the U.S. had almost no military presence in any of the three
countries in the JOA, the new JTF had to overcome problems in medical, logistical, engineering, aviation, and
humanitarian assistance operations that the pre-existing JTF did not face. The JTF also planned and coordinated for
each of the port, medical, base operations, airfield, and other support facilities that it occupied. Additionally, most
of the personnel and units assigned to assist in the JOA came from the continental U.S. (CONUS) and had little
expertise or knowledge in the region. The JTF staff was organized around a CONUS Corps Support Group (CSG)
headquarters, which had to quickly deploy, establish its base of operations, and begin support of arriving units. In
addition to the many challenges the JTF faced, it also had some unique opportunities, such as improving U.S.-Nicaraguan relations through humanitarian assistance operations in Nicaragua, where no American troops have
operated in decades.
Although this was a Joint operation, many of the lessons learned derived from this operation are applicable to
the Army. In fact, the Army provided over 70-percent of the personnel in the JTF force structure. This article
provides some of the JTF commander's initial impressions on Army lessons learned and successful tactics,
techniques and procedures (TTPs) employed during humanitarian assistance operations in the aftermath of
1. A headquarters with responsibility for humanitarian assistance must have experts early in the
operation to conduct the mission analysis and initial planning. The initial assessment laid the groundwork for
the entire operation. The JTF commander emphasized that "success was set up during the first three weeks of the
operation." To assist in the analysis and planning, USSOUTHCOM provided the JTF with a Deployable Joint Task
Force Augmentation Cell (DJTFAC), a nucleus of 20-25 planners to support contingency operations. Previously
used in exercises only, this organization supported a contingency operation for the first time in the aftermath of
Hurricane Mitch. DJTFAC members had regional and country expertise. Of all the experts on hand, however, the
doctor and the engineer were the two most essential to the success of the humanitarian assistance mission. They
were responsible for assessing the medical and engineering requirements, the main efforts in the operation.
2. Use the experts to plan all phases of the operation, to include the redeployment. The DJTFAC was
available to the commander for 30 days. Five days before releasing them from the operation, the commander
directed them to plan the redeployment. Because of the tremendous effort required to work three simultaneous port
operations in three different countries, as was the case during the initial deployment, the JTF adopted a step-down
method to the redeployment. Based on an assessment of the damage in each of the three countries, the country with
the least damage was accorded 30 days for operations, while the worst damaged was accorded the most days at 50.
This allowed the JTF to focus on each redeployment separately.
3. The commander must establish guiding principles for the operation that supports his vision for the
desired end-state. In the operations order brief, the JTF specified its end-state as follows: JTF "will have assisted
host-nation (HN) efforts to reinstate ground connectivity, rehabilitate critical facilities and infrastructure, ensuring
the HN's ability to return to pre-Mitch conditions and continue long-term recovery and development. Requirements
will have been identified for long-term recovery ensuring HNs are capable of preventing major outbreak of disease,
and continuing commercial/economic progress. Success will be defined as a smooth transition of the JOA to
[another USSOUTHCOM JTF] without major incident, injury or damaged equipment, and safely re-deployed to
home station.." Although each unit, such as Civil Affairs, Medical, and Engineering, sought to gain more of the
JTF's resources to maximize their own contributions, the commander had to adopt a "drop-back field of view" to
see the big picture and set priorities to support the JTF's end-state. To do this, the commander developed guiding
principles, loosely grouped under force protection and coordination/cooperation, to help his staff and subordinate
leaders exercise initiative in support of the desired end-state (see Supplement to Paragraph 3: JTF Commander's
Guiding Principles at end of article).
4. The commander must have fast and efficient transportation. The area of operations consisted of three
countries, spanning 100,357 square miles. To coordinate with the national-level ministers and the U.S. ambassadors
in the host nations, the commander needed transportation to move him quickly to the necessary meetings. Choosing
a Salvadoran air base as the location of his headquarters, the JTF commander had access to both the helicopters
under his operational command, as well as fixed-wing aircraft from U.S. Army South.
5. Unit commanders lead their forward-deployed elements in support of humanitarian assistance
mission. Subordinate unit leaders or staff officers often led units that deployed only forward elements to assist with
the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Commanders need to take the same approach to
humanitarian assistance missions as they would their wartime contingency missions. Consequently, they should
lead their forward-deployed elements. In fact, unit commanders should view the humanitarian assistance operation
as their real-world contingency operation, requiring their unique commander's perspective, higher level of maturity,
and greater knowledge and understanding of the political-military environment.
6. Leaders' reconnaissance in the area of operations is essential. A leaders' reconnaissance of the area of
operations, early in the planning phase, provides unit commanders with essential information to tailor their units for
the mission. The size of the party should be small (less than five) to avoid placing a strain on the available HN
support, which is probably limited during the early stages of a disaster relief operation. The reconnaissane element
should consist of at least one officer to grasp the "big picture," and one noncommissioned officer to view soldier
support issues that arise from the mission.
7. Supporting headquarters staff element must come from a pre-existing Table of Organization and
Equipment (TO&E) unit. Because the JTF is organized on an ad-hoc basis, there is a great impulse to assemble
the supporting headquarters element in the same fashion. This is a mistake because the ad-hoc staff lacks cohesion
and standing operating procedures (SOPs). Conversely, a TO&E unit that is tasked to provide and support a
headquarters element will not only furnish all the required key personnel, but also will deploy with the needed
support equipment, facilities, and staff SOPs.
8. Synchronize the deployment of personnel with the arrival of their equipment during the deployment
phase. Many soldiers arrived in the area of operations prior to the arrival of their equipment. This negated training
time at home station and slowed humanitarian assistance operations. Units could have spent their time more
effectively at home station conducting pre-deployment training in areas such as country orientation (with the focus
of providing situational and cultural awareness), force protection, and combat lifesaver training. Moreover, without
the proper tools, these soldiers could not effectively conduct their humanitarian assistance mission. The Reception,
Staging, Onward movement, and Integration (RSO&I) process is just as applicable in humanitarian assistance
operations as in wartime operations. The JTF must synchronize personnel and equipment flow to build
humanitarian assistance capability as surely as a combat unit must build its "combat power" in a wartime
9. Deploy an advance party with adequate equipment and supplies to receive and support the unit's
main body in an austere environment. During the deployment into theater, units arrived into the area of
operations without adequate equipment and rations. In fact, many units arrived without adequate shelter,
equipment, food and water, which had been placed aboard ship for transportation into theater. This created a
tremendous logistical strain on the newly formed JTF headquarters operating in an austere environment.
10. Train and certify as many combat lifesavers as possible. Combat lifesavers were essential to the
execution of the disaster relief operation, especially during the initial phases of the operation, when limited medical
assets were available. Units should focus on combat lifesaver training during pre-deployment preparation. Train all
available deploying unit personnel as intensely as possible. Coordinate with non-deploying medical units at home
station to conduct the training.
11. Emphasize the information operations (IO) campaign as an essential element of the humanitarian
assistance mission. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations offer unique opportunities to build trust
and friendship between the U.S. and the HN. This was especially true in Nicaragua, a country that the U.S. has had
minimal cooperation with for many years. A well thought-out and synchronized IO campaign, coordinated by a
Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA) Forward Support Team (FST) from the outset of the operation, would
have brought about a much more positive HN perception of the U.S. military. Additionally, the IO effort would
have strengthened the U.S. and HN bond by cultivating deeper trust and friendship.
12. Conduct detailed planning for contracting support and resource funding. When units arrived in
theater, they experienced difficulty purchasing some required items since resource funding was incomplete. In
addition, units could not access home-station financial support. Moreover, contracting officers were not
immediately available to assist units in ordering and contracting required supplies. This situation slowed initial
humanitarian assistance efforts.
Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations are often joint operations. However, because of the
Army's extensive role in supporting these operations, many of the lessons learned are applicable to the Army in the
areas of medical, logistical, aviation, engineering, and base support operations. Lessons learned from Hurricane
Mitch will significantly increase the Army's knowledge on how to better plan, prepare and execute future
humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. CALL is continuing to work with units involved in the relief
operation to collect more information in the form of after-action reports and operational documents and will make
that information available in the CALL data base, accessible through the CALL website.
|Supplement to Paragraph 3: JTF Commander's Guiding Principles
The JTF Commander provided the following guiding principles for his O-6 commanders during humanitarian
assistance operations in Central America after Hurricane Mitch:
Force protection is the key driver and must be defined up front. Establish a force protection working group to
monitor all aspects of the operation.
- Control the environment. Get situationally aware and decide the most dangerous events/activities
surrounding the work routine. Establish control measures to minimize exposure to risk.
- Do not operate on the margins. After transition from the crisis phase to the rehabilitation phase, all
operations, to include movement by air or ground must be deliberately planned and executed. The JTF is here to add
stability, not calamity or chaos.
- Publish General Order No. 1. Establish basic guidelines that are common to all service members, such as no
alcohol, and standing rules of engagement. Additionally, provide guidelines that are usually situationally dependent within
the operating environment, such as conducting operations only during daylight, imposing curfew from dusk to dawn, and
traveling with a minimum of two vehicles with armed security and communications.
- No independent operators. Be consistent and execute the plan. Coordinate with various agencies, and at
various levels to include embassies, HN ministries, media and local officials to ensure the JTF projects are in concert with
HN priorities and within the bounds of U.S. foreign policy. Give clear, up-front guidance to internal elements, such as
public affairs operations, Joint Information Bureau (JIB) and civil affairs, to ensure that their messages and themes are not
contradictory to those of the commander.
- Integrate HN military at every juncture. Working with the HN military will be a unique experience and
provide a lasting bond common to all soldiers. Having HN military working along side will improve situational awareness
and provide better all around security.
- Do not turn away help. Organizations from all services and directions have come to support humanitarian
assistance operations. Through proper coordination, the JTF can open many doors and accelerate the participation of these
units in HA operations. However, numerous government activities, military agencies, civilian entities, Private Volunteer
Organizations (PVOs)/Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)/International Organizations (IOs) will also attempt to
slide into the joint operations area unannounced. These agencies have their own agenda, but, nevertheless, must come
under the control of the commander. The JTF must ensure that they understand the commander's intent and concept of
operations and that they are aware of force protection issues.
- Do not re-create in-place systems. Maintain contacts and links with the U.S. elements within the host country
or theater of operations. Certainly the embassies are key, but, in this case, an in-place JTF located in Honduras provides
the primary link for logistics flow and U.S. Army, South (USARSO), located in Panama, provides the link for contracting,
initial civil-military humanitarian support, port operations and services which require transportation into our JOA. Use
these commands and the services to the JTF's benefit. These commands have a long-term relationship to maintain and a
continued presence after our JTF has departed.
- All visitors are VIPs. Visitors to the area have a strong impact on the outcome of the existing operations and
will most likely influence the future of overall operations and U.S. presence in the theater. Congressmen, Senators,
Department of Defense officials and senior government leadership will most certainly develop long-term foreign policy
direction and funding, based on the impressions during their visit.
- Learn the capabilities of the other services. This will help in building a cohesive team, optimizing
capabilities and putting the talents of others to use more efficiently. Find and put all of the JTF's Host-Nation language
speakers to good use.
- Make a meaningful contribution. Be a good neighbor; get out to see the projects and work sites. Respect the
people and their country. Gain cultural perspective...a lasting memento. If the environment is restrictive, then organize