Space Support For Disaster Relief

The U.S. military humanitarian responses to Pakistan’s flooded regions in 2010 and Japan’s quake- and tsunami-stricken northeast in 2011 are indications of how worldwide natural disasters are affecting U.S. national security priorities. Currently, environmental and disaster relief organizations rely primarily on civilian and commercial space systems for humanitarian operations. Iridium phones, for example, are valuable in situations where local telephone and cell phone service is disrupted, providing first responders with continuous connectivity from their staging areas to arrival on the scene. But U.S. national security space systems are also starting to play more of a role in these events. For example, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) recently started the Transnational Information Sharing Cooperation project (TISC) to link nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with U.S. military units in relief areas. With TISC in place, DISA was able to use channels on the Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) to communicate with NGOs supporting relief efforts in Haiti on the day after the earthquake in January 2010.

The response to the earthquake in Haiti provides an example of the innovative use of national security space programs. Hours after the Haiti earthquake struck, a volunteer Web site was set up to receive victim-supplied damage reports via the Internet and cell phones. Commercial satellite imagery and “crowd-sourcing” software were combined in a Web-based application to keep track of damage reports. Coordinating through the Internet, Haitian volunteers in the United States translated the Creole text messages into English within minutes of receipt. Reports with GPS coordinates were then automatically overlaid on Digital Globe high-resolution imagery, providing a near-real-time picture of the unfolding disaster. This self-organized “everyone-as-informant” Web site quickly became a main source for directing efforts of rescue workers and military assistance in the region.

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review calls for increasing the military’s capabilities to rapidly respond to natural disasters to avoid destabilization and conflict in volatile regions of the world. But if major hurricanes, floods, heat waves, and drought become increasingly common because of climate change, then responding to humanitarian emergencies could “significantly tax U.S. military transportation and support force structures, possibly resulting in a strained readiness posture and decreased strategic depth for combat operations,” according to the 2009 Annual Threat Assessment published by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The Navy, Air Force, and Army (especially the Army National Guard) have begun incorporating the demands of future foreign disaster relief operations in their force planning activities, especially for logistics and communications. Increased priority for disaster relief could eventually have implications for military space budgets. Next-generation space programs will enter service at a time when climate scientists are predicting intensifying storms and exacerbated drought and water scarcity. With disaster relief becoming a core military mission, national security space planners should begin exploring how future military space systems can enhance disaster relief capabilities. The Haitian experience suggests that proactive planning and innovative thinking—especially with regard to interfacing with NGOs, local authorities, and the Internet—can have a big payoff.
—Patrick L. Smith

Return to Summer 2011 Table of Contents

Go to main article:  Simulation Analysis of Resource Depletion and Climate Change Trends

Go to the sidebar: An Aerospace Simulation Scenario