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Waves of Hope: The U.S. Navy's Response to the Tsunami in Northern Indonesia

Reviewed by Lt. B.J. Armstrong, USN

Bruce A. Elleman, Waves of Hope: The U.S. Navy's Response to the Tsunami in Northern Indonesia (Newport Paper #28), Naval War College Press, Newport RI, 2007. 134 pp. appendix, notes, glossary, bibliography, index. Available for free download at:
www.nwc.navy.mil/press/newportpapers/ newportpapers.aspx

The early twenty-first century has been a period of mixed missions for the United States Armed Forces. As combat operations have dominated in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. maritime services have repeatedly been called upon to act as prime facilitators of humanitarian relief around the globe. Coast Guard and Navy rescue operations following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, non-combatant evacuation from Lebanon in 2006, and humanitarian relief operations following 2007's Tropical Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh are just a few examples of the operations conducted. America's maritime leaders have recognized the important role that naval forces play in modern humanitarian efforts and have included these missions as one of the sea services' six core capabilities in the new “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.” Dr. Bruce Elleman's Waves of Hope: The U.S. Navy's Response to the Tsunami in Northern Indonesia provides the first historically-minded account of Operation Unified Assistance, the U.S Navy's role in saving thousands of lives following the Tsunami that struck Sumatra in December of 2004.

Dr. Elleman, a research professor at the U.S. Naval War College, has produced a well researched and engaging study of the relief effort. If journalism is the first draft of history, then Waves of Hope can be seen as the second draft, as the author moved beyond the accounts of newspapers and press releases and included internal naval reports, interviews, and oral histories from the U.S. Naval Historical Center. In the process he tells the reader the story of how American naval forces delivered 9.5 million pounds of relief supplies to an Islamic nation, suspicious of American intentions, in a region with an active insurgency.

The study begins with an explanation of the science behind the earthquake and Tsunami that wracked the Indian and Pacific Oceans on the December 26, 2004 and a brief history of other Tsunamis that have impacted the world's littorals. Through eight more chapters the author illuminates the strengths and the weaknesses of the mission. Chapters are broken up by topic and include the intelligence limitations that resulted from a non-existent warning system and faulty reporting in the press, the importance of developing logistics and supply systems, and the positive post-mission political results of the operation.

Dr. Elleman spends a chapter discussing the vital importance of sea-basing during the mission. Sea-basing, or the capability to mount the operation completely from the sea, with sailors and assets returning to the ships of Combined Support Force 536 each night for hot chow and a navy rack, proved an important strategic point for the United States Navy. The concept had been talked about by navalists for decades, but Operation Unified Assistance validated the idea beyond combat operations. It significantly reduced the possibility of an incident between U.S. personnel and the local authorities, which was vital in a suspicious Islamic land. Sea-basing also limited the force protection issues that arose from operating in a region with an active anti-government insurgency. The coordination required to bring hundreds of military relief personnel ashore every day and return them to the ships every night, all the while moving people and supplies around the region, was nothing short of awe inspiring.

A second important chapter discusses the centrality of helicopter-assisted air access in the success of the mission. The region, which already had a limited infrastructure, had been decimated. Roads and bridges were washed out or destroyed and for a vast geography the helicopter was the only way in or out. While logistics missions are not dangerous, per se, the number of hours flown each day rapidly accumulated and placed a great deal of stress on both the aircrews and the airframes. Like the Berlin Airlift six decades before, Operation Unified Assistance demonstrated that airpower comes in many forms beyond the flight of the strategic bomber.

The final chapter is entitled “The Political Benefits of Unified Assistance.” Dr. Elleman attempts the difficult task of quantifying the political results of the humanitarian mission. While it is easy to quote the amount of water provided, the man hours devoted, or the sheer tonnage of relief supplies, it is much harder to illuminate the intangible benefits like political good will. In that effort Dr. Elleman compares Operation Unified Assistance with several other naval humanitarian missions and demonstrates the value of such operations diplomatically. The institutional bonds that developed between the United States and Indonesia, both militarily and in civil government, laid the foundation for future improvement of relations between the United States and largest Muslim nation in the world. This relationship has already resulted in positive results in America's fight against Islamic terrorists in South Asia.

Much of the focus of Waves of Hope is on the operational level of the mission: organization, command and control, and how the Combined Support Force operated. There are limited personal accounts from those in the lower half of the chain-of-command or those who worked on the ground among the Indonesians. The discussion of the combined nature of the Operation, partnering U.S. forces with militaries from across the globe as well as civilian agencies, is rather limited as well. This shouldn't be much of surprise, however, since the work is a product of the U.S. Naval War College, a pre-eminent institution in the study and teaching of the strategic and operational levels of naval conflict. Besides the military aspects, Dr. Elleman also includes a very interesting chapter on the medical mission of the USNS Comfort following the initial relief operation, a mission that included the groundbreaking inclusion of civilian medical personnel as part of the naval crew. Waves of Hope achieves its goals, making a compelling case for the inclusion of humanitarian missions in naval strategy and the study of naval warfare.

The intersections of military power and diplomacy have been highlighted in recent years through operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Operation Unified Assistances offers an example with positive results that commends itself to serious study. Bruce A. Elleman's Waves of Hope: The U.S. Navy's Response to the Tsunami in Northern Indonesia is an important read for students of modern naval power and a commendable illustration of the soft power aspect of the U.S. military for scholars of international relations.


Benjamin Armstrong is an active duty naval aviator currently serving aboard USS WASP. He has completed assignments as a search and rescue and special warfare pilot and as an advanced helicopter instructor pilot. Lieutenant Armstrong has BS in history from the United States Naval Academy and an MA in military history from Norwich University. His articles and reviews have appeared in several journals including The Naval War College Review, Strategic Insights, and Chronicles Online Journal.

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