At 0617 on 28 December 2014, Air-Asia flight QZ8501 traveling from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore disappeared from radar. Later that morning, the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency (BASARNAS) was activated to lead an international search-and-rescue operation in the Java Sea. On 30 December, Malaysian, Singaporean, Australian, and U.S. surface and air-search assets arrived in the search area. At this time, the author was a foreign area officer working for Task Force 73 (CTF-73) and Destroyer Squadron 7. On 2 January 2015 he arrived at the rescue-coordination center in Pangkalanbun, Indonesia, as the U.S. liaison officer to BASARNAS to help coordinate search efforts for two U.S. Navy ships deployed to the Java Sea. Over the 16 days of U.S. involvement in the search, the USS Sampson (DDG-102) recovered 15 crash victims, and both the Sampson and USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) searched a combined 22,000 square miles of the Java Sea.
Seldom does one get the opportunity to perform a duty so perfectly matched to his education and training that he feels confident in saying, “No one was better prepared for this challenge than I was.” This may sound arrogant, but it is far less a reflection on me and much more indicative of how well my experiences in the U.S. Navy over the last 15 years prepared me for my duties in Pangkalanbun, at the southern tip of Kalimantan, Indonesia. It would be hard for anyone to imagine the sum of their naval experiences playing a small but important role in a successful humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief (HA/DR) operation, but in my case they did.
As I’ve had more time to reflect on this mission, I realized it was not a singular experience, but a confluence of experiences informed from 13 years as a surface warfare officer living and operating in the Pacific Fleet and two years as a foreign area officer (FAO) combined with Indonesian language training at the Defense Language Institute. To be an FAO without the operational experience or an operator without the language and cultural training would be to miss the whole picture of what an FAO is capable of doing in remote places such as Pangkalanbun. Most of all, three things contributed to my success there, which I would offer as advice to anyone heading downrange in a similar situation: Pack lightly, drink coffee, and learn the local language.
Be flexible. Packing a minimal amount may seem obvious, but the dynamic nature of most HA/DR operations makes it necessary to be light and mobile. As I departed Singapore, the initial AirAsia rescue-coordination center was in Bangka Island near Belitung, another island. After debris was discovered elsewhere, the rescue-coordination center shifted 300 miles east across the Java Sea to Pangkalanbun. Renegotiating airline tickets across multiple airlines and ticket counters would have been far more difficult lugging a heavy suitcase around one of the busiest airports in the world.
After arriving in Pangkalanbun, I walked 100 yards from the civilian airport to the Indonesian Air Force base with my bag over my shoulder, arrived at the rescue center, stashed my bag in a corner, and got to work. The first Sampson helicopter arrived in Pangkalanbun carrying the bodies of three crash victims less than three hours after my arrival. It was rewarding to be able to contribute to the success of the operation immediately on arrival. Only after this feverish first day ended did I turn to my new friends and ask about lodging.
Relationships matter. As the operation settled into a daily rhythm, I found there would be instances of near-chaos followed by periods of relative calm. It was during these quiet moments that I took time to walk around the POSKO (command center) and meet with all of the people who had turned up to help. Aside from the hundreds of hands I shook and photos I was asked to pose for, I drank a lot of coffee.
Over these cups, I sat with members of the local police, the regency government, parliament, volunteers from the local palm oil plantations, and the Indonesian air force officers’ wives’ club. It was through this ritual that we became familiar with one another; I gained their trust and became part of their team. Due to these nascent relationships, I was able to coordinate the arrival of U.S. MH-60R helicopters into Pangkalanbun on a moment’s notice via text message to the commanding officer of Iskandar Air Force Base—something unheard of prior to the start of the operation.
Communication. I cannot overstate the importance of knowing and understanding the culture and language of the country in which you’re operating. In Jakarta, Indonesia’s huge capital, many people speak English. In more remote places of the world such as Pangkalanbun, they do not. Communicating in Indonesian and understanding cultural nuances was central to my success there. Being able to speak directly to the Indonesian Air Force personnel working the airfield to coordinate clearance, arrival times, and much-needed supplies (body bags, sanitary suits, gloves, duct tape, etc.) meant I could instantly be part of the solution—no time or effort was lost in translation.
No one learns a foreign language on their way to a disaster area. It is essential that the U.S. military continues to invest in language training for a cadre of personnel who have the experience to coordinate complex military operations in a foreign language.
It’s Not Always About Leading
During a HA/DR or search-and-recovery operation such as the AirAsia mission, international assistance pours into an affected area from all directions. Human nature compels those of us who think of ourselves as leaders to “lead from the front.” Indeed, almost every international participant believes their equipment, training, and will to be the most important. But in a multilateral response such as this, sometimes the most appropriate response is to resist the urge to take charge and instead fall in line and contribute.
Leadership still mattered, however. In fact, during the search for AirAsia flight QZ8501, two qualities were really important: knowing when to be a good follower and making the difficult look easy. Several days into the search, the Fort Worth—one of the Navy’s newest warships—was given an assignment by BASARNAS to conduct an underwater search of several objects suspected as being part of the wreckage miles from the already located tail section.
Some might consider this a misallocation of resources, but because the Fort Worth was able to classify several suspected objects as “not related to the crash,” the Indonesians could remain focused on locating the black boxes and the body of the aircraft. As it turns out, eliminating where the aircraft was not was just as essential as finding where it was, and the Fort Worth’s willingness and capability to play her assigned role helpfully narrowed the search area as the operation continued.
The most important contribution by the American forces involved in the search was when the Sampson recovered the bodies of 15 crash victims from the Java Sea. Dozens of sailors from the Sampson carried out this tough and grisly task—one that would be difficult in the most ideal conditions, but was carried out in high seas, wind, and rain—with zero hesitation. Several members of those teams were quoted by the media as saying how proud they were to be able to contribute to bringing closure to the families of the victims. They made it look easy. The Sampson’s crew epitomized the spirit of gotong royong, an Indonesian term used to describe the sense of selfless community action in achieving a common goal.
For decades, the U.S. approach to engagement in Southeast Asia has been a bilateral framework of hub-and-spoke agreements and exercises that have served our Navy and participating nations well. That notwithstanding, the search for AirAsia flight QZ8501 re-emphasized that real-world operations are often beyond the capacity of one or two countries and require multinational responses. In Southeast Asia alone, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, 2014’s search for MH370, and the search for AirAsia QZ8501 are all examples of recent multilateral responses to crisis.
During the AirAsia search, aside from our Indonesian friends I also coordinated operations with Russian, Singaporean, and Japanese planners. I met often with a team of Russian planners to discuss their underwater search activities to include locations and results. I took photos of a Singaporean Super Puma on deck at the airfield in Pangkalanbun, and passed these along with updates on arrival and departure times to the Republic of Singapore Navy operations center in Singapore. I met with the Japanese naval attaché to Indonesia as Japanese SH-60 helicopters landed at Pangkalanbun. I worked with his Japanese liaison officer in Jakarta to develop a potential refueling plan for their surface assets with a U.S. oiler near the search area. Given how much we have to operate multilaterally, it only makes sense that we train the same way.
Although no one hopes to ever repeat this operation, history suggests that within the next year or two, ships and aircraft from multiple nations will be joining together in response to a new humanitarian disaster or incident in Southeast Asia. Whenever that happens, maritime interoperability will matter. Differences in frequencies and equipment can hinder communications. The flow of information to and from a host-nation command center can impact decision making.
How can we improve? With very few multilateral exercises in Southeast Asia where navies can increase interoperability and information sharing in a complex environment, the time is right for the U.S. Navy and Southeast Asian navies to seek out even more training in a multilateral setting. It was a privilege to play a role in the AirAsia search, but we’d miss a key opportunity to improve if we do not reflect on how to be even better prepared for the next challenge.