OPERATION SUMATRA ASSIST ADF response to the Boxing Day Tsunami MAJGEN (Ret) David ChalmersThe Boxing Day 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami was a disaster of a magnitude that isdifficult to comprehend from the relative security of our Australian lounge rooms. At7.58am on Sunday the 26th of December, a 9.4 Richter scale magnitude earthquakeoccurred with an epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra. Several buildings collapsed inthe provincial capital Banda Aceh, although damage to the city was relatively light. Yeta far more powerful force of nature was not far away. Within 15 minutes a tsunamiestimated by Indonesian authorities to have peaked at 34 metres struck the coastline.Like a gigantic scythe this huge wall of water swept houses, bridges, roads and peopleaway, leaving little but the foundations of coastal villages as it receded. More than athird of the cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh were totally destroyed, with thousands oftonnes of wreckage and mud pushed into the areas that escaped the direct effect of thewave.Some 220,000 people died, many of whom were washed out to sea. But over 100,000bodies remained, covered in mud and buried in amongst the debris left behind in the twocities. Another 500,000 people lost homes - many lost all of their extended family andtheir business or livelihood as well.Australia‟s response to the tragedy was swift. Our Government made an immediatedecision to provide as much assistance as we could, with the result that General Cosgroverang the Indonesian Chief of Defence, General Sutarto, to offer military support. Jointlevel planning was already well underway, so we were able to respond very quickly afterbeing invited by General Sutarto to help in Aceh.On the 28th of December an Australian C130 transport aircraft landed in Banda Aceh, thefirst relief support to arrive. In fact, it landed only just after the Indonesian commanderGeneral Bambang Darmono arrived, and before he had had a chance to set up hisheadquarters or begin any planning. This C130 was the tip of a major AustralianDefence Force (ADF) relief operation, which quickly grew to involve a deployed force ofsome 1100 Australian, New Zealand and British service personnel, which was namedOperation Sumatra Assist. The force itself was given the designation Combined JointTask Force 629 or CJTF629.The mission that was given to me as Force Commander, was as specific as the availableinformation allowed – „go and do some good‟. This was caveated by the strategicimperative to do so in a manner that enhanced rather than harmed our relationship withIndonesia: in other words undertaking our operations with cultural sensitivity and in amanner that respected Indonesian sovereignty.A number of challenges faced the CJTF as we deployed into Sumatra. The mostsignificant was the initial lack of any substantial information regarding where and howour effort could best be directed. We did know that there were a large number of victims
2and displaced people, with estimates growing by the hour in the first few days.Acquisition of more specific data was hampered by the total paralysis of the Acheneseprovincial government due to losses amongst its staff. Compounding this, access intoAceh was constrained by the limited capacity of airheads and the destruction of ports andthe west coast roads. Most survivors could only be reached by boat or helicopter.I also needed to be concerned about the threat to the safety of the CJTF posed by both theenvironment and security situation in Aceh. The unburied dead and lack of eithersanitation or clean water for survivors posed a serious threat to the health of would berelief workers. Security constraints also posed a dilemma for an unarmed force – theterrorist threat was high and Aceh‟s insurgency war continued despite a ceasefire.A final concern was the so called “Second wave” of the tsunami - the crowd ofvolunteers, aid organisations and military forces that flooded into Aceh during Januaryand February. Some were invited by the Indonesian government, but most had justdecided to help. Many organisations came without logistic support and some were moreof a burden than a boon. This complex and daily changing cast of charactersoverwhelmed the ability of the Indonesian authorities, and the United Nations when theyarrived, to synchronise effectively.In the absence of much information in the first few hours after the tsunami, Australia‟sresponse was based on our experience some years ago in providing assistance after thePapua New Guinea tsunami. Our initial C130 deployment was followed within 48 hoursby a small team of medical personnel and Army engineers. The immediacy of thisresponse helped save lives; we had a surgical team working in the Indonesian military(TNI) hospital in Banda Aceh by December 30th. Sadly, while thousands of casualtiesneeded treatment, there were fewer injured than we expected; apparently most of those inthe disaster zone had been killed. The engineers also made a huge impact through thewater purification plant they set up in the centre of Banda Aceh. The Convent WaterPoint, as it was known, provided thousands of litres of safe drinking water throughJanuary and February, until we eventually handed it over to the Red Cross. It became avery visible symbol of the ADF‟s speed of response and commitment.Concurrently, the RAAF established a Forward Command Element and our C130s beganflying in much needed medical supplies and food to Aceh. Within a week a FieldHospital, six helicopters, engineer reconnaissance teams and the force headquarters weredeploying into Medan and then forward to Banda Aceh. The hospital was augmented bya New Zealand medical team, and two of the helicopters were British. We also had aKiwi C130 flying as part of the combined joint force.
3One of the early decisions that had to be taken was where to focus the ADF relief effort.I had sufficient logistic and communications capability to support up to two locations, sothe option of putting the hospital in one area and the engineers elsewhere, depending onthe need for their respective capabilities, existed. I was also conscious that Banda Acehwas likely to be over whelmed with relief support, while other areas received little ornone. On the other hand, we had already set up a useful foothold in Banda Aceh, andforce protection considerations militated toward reinforcing this initial lodgement.Discussion with General Bambang led to what I regarded as a natural division of work –the Singaporean Armed Forces in Meulaboh, the ADF to reinforce its effort in BandaAceh and the US Combined Support Group to focus on rotary wing lift in between. CJTF 629 - FORCE DISPOSITION • Forward Command Element • 6 UH-1H Helicopters • Field Hospital • Engineers • HMAS Kanimbla • 6 C130 • Logistic Support Base • 1 Kingair • Combined joint Task Force HQ Figure 1Figure 1 shows how Australia had military forces deployed by mid January. I had myheadquarters in Medan, supported by our embassy staff in Jakarta. The ANZAC fieldhospital, a helicopter detachment and an engineer group as well as a forward headquarterswere located in Banda Aceh, and a major logistics hub was established in Butterworth,Malaysia. We were also assessing the feasibility of using the port of Sabang, on an islandjust north of Banda Aceh, as a force extraction point; an option I eventually took.I set up my headquarters in Medan for a number of reasons. Firstly because GeneralCosgrove told me to – so in that regard it was not a difficult decision. I was also on aknife-edge in balancing available sustainment air effort with the force flow I had intoBanda Aceh, so I had to keep to a minimum the people I had forward. But it was alsoobvious that Medan was the logistics and co-ordination hub in the initial stages if theoperations. And in fact a few days after we arrived both the Singaporean and UnitedStates forces also set up their headquarters in Medan.
4Providing the command and control of a combined joint force was a challenge for ourvery small headquarters. This would have been much more difficult had I not had a smallbut highly effective Civil Military Co-operation (CIMIC) capability. The CIMIC Teamswere my eyes and ears outside of the headquarters, especially with the hundreds of otheragencies seeking our support. Further, they provided a link with the IndonesianGovernment and TNI, ensuring that our efforts were always in accordance with thepriorities set by the Indonesians. CIMIC teams were dispersed across the disaster areaproviding support to ADF elements where and when required.Understandably, the sheer scale of the disaster initially overwhelmed the Indonesian civiland military agencies. No co-ordination mechanisms existed when we arrived, andalthough good will and hard work were resulting in some aid getting to where it wasneeded, the CIMIC staff made an assessment that Non-Government Organisations(NGOs) were inundating military transport assets with requests. It was almost impossibleto apply the priorities set by the Indonesians, with often the loudest NGO voice or themost convenient load being sent forward, rather than the most needed aid. Congestion atairports was chronic and aid that was needed forward in the disaster area continued topile up. LTCOL David Mcguire resolved this problem with AusAID through theestablishment of a Civil Military Aid Coordination Conference. The CMACC, as it wasknown, provided a central coordination point for military and civilian agencies and,coupled with the creation of a Combined Air Operations Centre at Polonia airport, put theIndonesians back in control of the relief effort.Controlled by the Combined Air Operations Centre, our airlift group comprised six C130transport aircraft, which flew both relief supplies and logistic sustainment for the CJTFfrom Butterworth and Medan into Banda Aceh, and six Huey UH-1H helicopters. Thehelicopters formed part of a fleet of some 75 rotary wing aircraft, which during Januaryformed the only means of ferrying food and water down to isolated communities on thewest coast. The crews lived on the side of the Banda Aceh airfield, in appallingly muddyand noisy conditions, with frequent aftershocks an unpleasant reminder of the cause ofthe tsunami.Established by January 6th, the ANZAC Field Hospital was located at the Zainal AbidinHospital in Banda Aceh. The facility comprised an integrated surgical ward with a staffof around 120 Australian and 30 New Zealand personnel. In addition to providingmedical support, medics and engineers had to clear the significant amount of mud, debrisand damaged hospital equipment that remained in the hospital buildings. Along with theIndonesian infantry soldiers involved in the clean up, their endurance and motivation wasremarkable. Under the leadership of LTCOL Georgina Whelan, hospital staff undertooka heavy workload, including treating some horrific injuries and confronting cases. Butthere were also uplifting moments that helped the staff‟s morale, including the birth of 18children in the hospital. One of these was named „Anzac‟ by his grateful parents, alasting reminder of the hospital‟s work in Aceh.Having sailed from Sydney on New Years eve, HMAS Kanimbla arrived on January13th, and landed our engineer group at Banda Aceh to commence work. The AustralianArmy Engineer Detachment consisted of around 150 troops from the Darwin-based 1st
5Combat Engineer Regiment, commanded by LTCOL Ian Cumming. The engineersoperated a number of water points throughout Aceh to provide potable water to localcommunities and to the Banda Aceh Public Hospital. Another significant task was theremoval of debris from the city, and particularly clearing drains to allow floodwater to beremoved from the city. This was physically and psychologically demanding work, muchof it done by hand with the frequent discovery of bodies in the wreckage a constanthazard. As a means of providing relief from debris clearing LTCOL Cumming tasked hisengineer sections to recover some of the fishing boats washed into the city, eventuallygraduating from fairly small craft to relaunching a very large fishing boat.One of the lessons I learnt during the operation was that speed of response in disasterrelief is critical. There will never be perfect situational awareness, so in the face ofuncertainty it‟s a matter of sending your best guess force structure and then shaping it asyou pile on. Although medical and engineer capabilities were most nation‟s „best guess‟,and ours did magnificent work, niche capabilities turned out to be real force multipliers.For example our air traffic controllers at Banda Aceh enabled a carrier group‟s worth ofhelicopters to operate safely. Air load teams with forklift trucks and pallets were thedifference between aid piling up in warehouses and it flowing forward smoothly. Andthe networks developed by CIMIC teams with both the Indonesians and other agenciesreduced the duplication of effort, improved the security of aid workers and greatlyexpedited the aid effort.Perhaps the most important issue for me throughout the operation was to maintain theprimacy of the Indonesian government in the relief effort. Whilst Aceh was devastatedby the earthquake and Tsunami, the Indonesian Government was still intact and hadcontrol of the operation. If I had one criticism of some agencies involved in the reliefeffort, it would be that they treated Indonesia as a failed state and largely ignored both theGovernment and the TNI. The large number of volunteers, foreign military and aidorganisations which flooded into Aceh exacerbated congestion in the effected area.Many of these organisations did not seek Indonesian guidance on requirements orpermission to deploy, nor were they self-sustaining. The sensitive cultural issues posedby working in a conservative Muslim province, fearful of corruption by westerners, was apotential vulnerability that radical Islamic organisations attempted to exploit throughinformation operations. I have the highest regard for the good judgement of Australianjunior soldiers who turned this vulnerability into a strength through their consistent andmature understanding of the need for cultural sensitivity.The emergency phase was over by the end of February, and with it the requirement formilitary support to disaster relief work in Banda Aceh. We worked closely with AUSaidto ensure that there was no disruption to the support being provided to the people of Acehduring the transition from military to civilian aid. It then took four weeks of solid labourto clean our equipment to Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) standards– a very costly exercise. Our relationship with AQIS inspectors was good although theywere zealous in the performance of their duties. My extraction plan was to get out of theway of ongoing disaster relief and reconstruction work while we went through thisprocess, by moving the force to Sabang to do our clean up. Even so, remaining in theatreto clean equipment was a risk, one that may not be acceptable on future operations.
6I would summarise the keys to the success of the operation as: Sensitivity at all levels within the task force to the broader strategic objectives of the operation. Very effective leadership at the Junior Non Commissioned Officer (NCO) level, Co-operation, flexibility and a sense of humour within the CJTF. The high standard of equipment and training existing within the ADF, and the ability to deploy at very short notice. A small number of low cost, high outcome capabilities, particularly air traffic controllers, water purification teams, CIMIC teams and the field hospital. Support of HMAS Kanimbla, without which the risks and difficulty in mounting such an operation would be significantly higher.With few exceptions, more than a thousand members of the ADF responded at shortnotice to the challenges of the operation very professionally. Along with the SingaporeanArmed Forces, they set the benchmark for behaviour and work ethic, comparing veryfavourably with other foreign military forces. Many more ADF members, although notdeployed, worked tirelessly in support of the operation. Leadership at every level, butparticularly by junior NCOs, was impressive. Much work was done in an environmentwell outside the normal experience of CJTF members, largely due to the corpsescontained in the debris of Banda Aceh. Small teams, usually led by private soldiers orcorporals, did all that was asked of them and more, and set the tone and foundation forthe CJTF‟s success. I was indeed fortunate and very proud to command such aprofessional force of soldiers, sailors and airmen.