November 12, 2014

U.S. military launches logistics response to Ebola crisis

Operation United Assistance helps establish health care operations in afflicted regions of West Africa.

By Steve Geary

The Ebola crisis in West Africa has drawn the world's attention to the terrible effects of the deadly disease and the heroic efforts of health care workers who have responded to the crisis. What is less understood by the general public is the enormous logistics effort required to provide those health care workers the footprint on the ground needed to execute their mission. This work is being undertaken by the U.S. military, making use of its considerable logistics capabilities.

In response to the Ebola epidemic, the Pentagon launched Operation United Assistance, the logistical support the U.S. military is providing to West Africa to help establish the health care footprint in often hard-to-reach areas. According to the Pentagon, "The U.S. Africa Command, through U.S. Army Africa, provides coordination of logistics, training, and engineering support to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in West Africa to assist in the overall U.S. Government Foreign Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief efforts to contain the spread of the Ebola virus/disease, as part of the international assistance effort supporting the governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea."

The U.S. military is uniquely equipped to provide the logistics necessary to accomplish this mission, as it has equipment and capacity that are beyond the reach of any other organization. For example, the U.S. military has over 200 C-17 transport aircraft; that's more airframes than most countries' air forces have in their entire inventory. By way of comparison, the United Kingdom has eight C-17s, and the Australians have six. The C-17 fleet gives the U.S. military the lift capability to reach anywhere in the world. This kind of capacity is available to undertake missions outside of the military realm, humanitarian relief efforts in particular.

Logisticians in the Africa Command are responsible for the military's humanitarian effort in response to Ebola. They are working on establishing 12 Ebola treatment units, spread around Liberia, each with a 100-bed capacity. The units will be turned over to the local governments and staffed by local and international health care providers, not by military personnel. The first treatment unit went operational at the end of October, and the rest are coming on line in the following weeks. Operation United Assistance personnel have established a training facility for health care workers near Monrovia, as well as an intermediate staging base in Senegal.

They have also set up two mobile laboratories, which are able to turn samples around within 24 hours. An air bridge has been set up in Senegal to help logistics flow because some areas have no roads and many of the roads that do exist are inundated with mud. U.S. military V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft are helping speed the delivery of resources, supplies, and personnel to some of these very remote areas.

Additionally, a 25-bed hospital dedicated to treating health care workers who become infected with Ebola is up and running, fully operational, and staffed by volunteers from the U.S. Public Health Service.

Military personnel who serve in the Ebola-stricken areas of West Africa will also face a 21-day quarantine, a measure approved by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the request of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to news reports.

In addition, the Pentagon is preparing for the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the United States, according to the military news publication Stars and Stripes. The preparations include the formation of a 30-person team that could operate inside the United States to provide military support to civilian authorities. "We do the same thing when there are forest fires," Pentagon Spokesman Col. Steve Warren told Stars and Stripes, "and obviously there are firemen who are capable of fighting forest fires. Same situation here—this is planning, this is creating a team who if requested...can support a specific location."

About the Author

Steve Geary
Editor at Large
Steve Geary is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Tennessee's College of Business Administration, and is on the faculty at The Gordon Institute at Tufts University, where he teaches supply chain management. He is the President of the Supply Chain Visions family of companies, and Chief Operating Officer at ROSE Solutions, consultancies that work across the government sector. Steve is a contributing editor at DC Velocity, and editor-at-large for CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. He is listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in Science and Engineering, and Who's Who in Executives and Professionals. In November of 2007, Steve was recognized for "Selfless Service to Our Nation and the People of Iraq" by the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

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