Tim Garden: Chaos follows every disaster. So why do we never learn?

The Pakistan earthquake shows more than ever that we need the military for disaster relief
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Natural disasters on a biblical scale seem to be on the rise. Weather-related events are expected to increase in both frequency and intensity as the global climate changes. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions strike without warning as the Earth relieves its internal tensions. Forest fires, landslips and flooding bring regular death and disaster. Nor can we be sure when and where some asteroid may strike.

More people live on the planet than ever before. They live in dense population clusters looking for the economic benefits of urban life. When disaster strikes, the numbers affected run to millions. Building standards in many of the fast-growing cities of the developing world are unenforced. Modern city life is one of dependence on a complex web of services to provide food, water, sanitation, heat and shelter. Disruption of these utilities multiplies the impact of any disaster. Those who survive the falling buildings may die from disease or dehydration. Does this mean that nothing can be done to reduce the consequences of such natural events?

Security is a burning issue for every government today. The nuclear risks of the Cold War may have diminished but terrorism and unstable states generate enough concern for the world to pump £565bn every year into its armed forces. The capabilities generated by this extraordinary expenditure are designed for a narrow concept of military security. They are to be used in fighting wars, preventing conflict and securing peace. However, when natural disaster strikes, all governments look to their military for emergency help. National civilian emergency services are scaled for normal day-to-day problems, and are quickly overwhelmed by a major disaster. As infrastructure breaks down, only military forces have the helicopters, off-road vehicles and specialist manpower to supplement the rescue efforts. Yet there is a paradox. In many parts of the world, more people are likely to be killed by a natural disaster than are at risk from terrorism or war. Yet militaries are designed solely around the defence task. Response to natural emergencies is seen as a bonus rather than a primary task. It is time for this to change.

All natural disasters have a number of common demands for which military resources are well suited. Rapid response saves lives. We have seen in the tsunami, in New Orleans and now in Pakistan how long it takes to get help to those who survive the initial event. Some of this is because of leadership failures, but much is also the lack of information, as communications are lost. There is also the problem caused by the destruction to the road, rail and airports links.

Professional armed forces can provide leadership, and need rapidly deployable elements for their war-fighting tasks. In combat, they expect to be denied the use of normal routes such as road and rail, and equip themselves appropriately. The transport helicopter is the workhorse of modern warfare. It comes in all sizes. Small helicopters can lift in reconnaissance teams to assess what needs to be done. They can rescue stranded survivors stuck in trees escaping floods in Mozambique. Larger helicopters, like the ubiquitous Chinook, can take in food, water, medical supplies and rescue teams by the tons. They can carry survivors to safety by the score.

An army expects to have to deal with battle casualties suffering from life-threatening injuries and trauma. Allocating priorities to save the many comes naturally. Yet the changing nature of warfare has for some advanced countries, including Britain, reduced the resources for deployable field hospitals. While there may be less call for dealing with the wounded in a war against the former Soviet Union, military medical capabilities are life-saving in any disaster zone. How then do we better prepare ourselves to deal with these major disasters? If the US, with all its military might, could not respond to a well predicted hurricane in its own back yard, what hope have the more remote parts of the globe?

The first requirement is for governments to make disaster relief a primary military task. In the UK, as elsewhere, military involvement is on an availability basis. With the exception of our coastal search and rescue helicopters, no regular military force is established for civilian emergencies. Even this capability is primarily for rescuing military aircrew who have ejected. In adopting a new disaster security role, forces would have to be kept at high readiness for rapid deployment. This is expensive. Yet through the Cold War, we kept much of our military capability at very short notice and located them forward in Germany.

Nevertheless, in natural disasters response time must be measured in hours rather than days if lives are to be saved. Specialist teams can be flown into the nearest working airport. Helicopters are more difficult. They fly relatively slowly and may take days to deploy to distant parts. Some can be sent in faster conventional cargo aircraft, but there is a time penalty in packing the helicopter for transit and preparing it for flight at the destination. This is the reason that often civilian helicopters are hired in the region, but they will always be in short supply. Even when military helicopters are available nearby, their owners may believe the defence task is more important. Nato is operating in Afghanistan and could presumably have come to the aid of Pakistan. There will be questions to be answered as to why this apparently did not happen.

The time has come for a global initiative. The UN should lead the call for nations to devote a proportion of their military effort to providing deployable emergency task forces. They would include helicopters, paramedics, field hospitals, engineers and infantry. The more nations that provide such capabilities, the more likely that a timely response will be available wherever a disaster strikes.

Some capabilities might need to be deployed to forward areas. Regional organisations such as Nato and the EU could take up the requirement to provide the more expensive specialist equipment on a pooled basis. They could also organise training and set standards so that multinational effort would be easier.

For Britain, there would be a particular problem. Although the Labour strategic defence review of 1998 claimed that it was promoting our military to be a force for good, events have made this ideal difficult to realise. The defence budget has seen only a marginal increase in funds, but the demands have become much greater. Operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone and East Timor have required not only a broad range of capabilities, but also an ability to sustain forces for extended periods in increasingly difficult circumstances.

The policy to stay close to US force developments has not been cheap either. We currently have a situation where aircraft and ship activity is being much reduced in order to pay for maintaining troop deployments.

Yet the future equipment programme looks to buy expensive new ships and aircraft. Transport helicopters are already in short supply and have been in constant use for operations. When Nato asked for helicopters to be deployed in Afghanistan, the UK decided to send Harrier ground attack aircraft instead. Movement in Iraq depends heavily on helicopter operations.

If disaster relief were to become a new primary task for UK defence forces, there would either have to be extra funding, or a change in the current priorities. I have argued that our defence policy is already tilted too much towards the high technology war-fighting end of the spectrum. Perhaps a move towards more air transport, specialist troops and reconstruction equipment could have wider benefits.

In Afghanistan, Nato is fielding reconstruction teams to help rebuild the society. Their composition is not that different from what would be needed for a disaster relief force. Thus if the UK did more in this respect, the troops would have wider utility when other units took on the short notice standby for an emergency.

There will be arguments made against having forces held at high readiness which cannot be used for other operations. Yet the experience of the last year shows that there is no lack of business for disaster relief.

Perhaps such a concept can be sold to sceptical governments on a different basis. An emergency response force would also be able to cope with the consequences of a large-scale terrorist attack.

If the warnings of mass casualties from future al-Qa'ida operations are taken seriously, then every European nation ought to have an emergency relief force at readiness now. For once, military security and being a force for good in the world can be achieved with a single capability. There is still time for Britain to launch an initiative during its EU presidency.

Tim Garden is Liberal Democrat defence spokesman in the Lords and a former air marshal