The Ebola Response, A Case Study

Mar 17, 2020 | DTJ Online

The spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) is dominating the news, but it wasn’t so long ago the world was responding to another crisis—the Ebola outbreak. During the 2015 Fall Meeting, a roundtable discussion shed light on what was required to achieve mission success during the Ebola response.

The panel moderator was Maj Gen Wayne Schatz, USAF, who at the time he served as the Vice Commander of Air Mobility Command (AMC). Roundtable participants included Maj Gen Jim Vechery, USAF, who was the Director of Logistics, USAFRICOM; Mr. Jeff Crippen, President and CEO of Omni Air International; Mr. Guy Beougher, then Executive Director, Logistics Operations, Defense Logistics Agency (DLA); and Mr. Bleu Hilburn who was Director of Logistics for Crowley.                                    

The circumstances and scale of the two outbreaks may differ—Coronavirus is a pandemic, while Ebola was an epidemic. However, examining past responses may provide insights as to how to shape our current actions. Especially if (or hopefully when) vaccines or other treatments for Coronavirus become available, the logistical lessons learned from Ebola may become increasingly relevant.


The Operation
On September 16, 2015, President Obama gave clear guidance to the Department of Defense (DOD) to support people in need in West Africa and combat the spread of Ebola to prevent it from coming to the US. The US specifically focused on Liberia, while the United Kingdom and France were to focus on the other two countries fighting the spread of the disease [Sierra Leone and Guinea].

The timeline for Operation Unified Assistance (OUA) was impressive. The Joint Staff signed the execution order the day before the President’s speech, which started things in motion. Within 24-hours of the execution order, the initial assessment team from the Joint Task Force was in the air and on their way to West Africa.

Concerns existed over the lack of a US military infrastructure in place, which could adversely affect the availability of airports and seaports. Within a week, initial forces followed to help open ports, which was key to flowing support and forces into the country. For the first month, USTRANSCOM lead support efforts for the operation. Gradually, the US Army in Africa with Joint headquarters staff assumed command and control.

Vital to the mission was providing medical equipment and tents, which were used as initial health care centers for training health care workers and for establishing a hospital-like environment. At the height of the effort, approximately 3,000 soldiers were on the ground. By May, almost everyone had deployed back to the US, and the operation came to a close.

Strategic Lessons Learned
Maj Gen Schatz shared a number of important lessons learned from the combatant command and strategic perspective. First and foremost, relationships matter and events like the NDTA Fall Meeting are important to fostering those relations. Such events bring military, government, and industry together to get everyone talking to each other. The benefit of establishing these relationships is that when a crisis occurs, the connections are already in place. While OUA was occurring, there was also a lot happening in other parts of the world—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, and Ukraine—and the US was able to bring capacity to bare in a huge humanitarian operation and move almost 4,000 people into an austere environment.

Additionally, talking multiple times a day and sharing information among commercial partners and the military allowed the US to undertake this massive effort in a short time frame—and be successful. The plan was being built as it was being executed, so communication was of the utmost importance.

Another important lesson was that DOD acquisition works. With short time frames and turn around times, people within the acquisition community were making things happen, sometimes within 24-hours. For example, US personnel potentially affected by Ebola needed to be transported out of Africa. Within 24-hours, the capability to move these people on an aircraft and out of the country was acquired.

The final lesson Maj Gen Schatz shared is that joint training and exercises allow for strategic access. Practice, working exercises, and joint training between USTRANSCOM, DLA, AFRICOM, and commercial partners laid the groundwork because a system was in place to accomplish the mission.

Military Response
The handling the Ebola crisis in Liberia is a great news story, a logistics success story, said Maj Gen Vechery. On May 9, 2015, Liberia was declared Ebola-free. How did we succeed? We gave the Liberians confidence and courage to handle the problem.

Before going into this, lessons learned from the humanitarian aid response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti were reviewed. Once in-country, the ability for the military to use the airfield had to be established. Two Joint Task Force teams were established and DLA led those teams in setting up deployable depots. Having the use of the aerial port, seaport, warehousing, and contracting support set responders up for success.

The original design of the operation was for a planned heavy military presence and then a shift to contracting capability. This approach was chosen to minimize the footprint on the ground, and to put less people at risk. The lead federal agency was USAID, who was concerned about working with the military. With this in mind, DLA partners brought in disposition teams to assist in getting personal property and real property proper authorizations in place to allow for transition to other organizations and the government of Liberia. Ultimately, oversight was successfully transitioned to the World Food Program, with the US military monitoring the transition to ensure it went smoothly.

The Commercial Components
Commercial partners, such as Atlas Air and Crowley, were essential to the mission’s success. Communication between the industry and military partners was critical to their ability to stand side-by-side in support of the effort.

From the Atlas Air perspective, personnel such as maintenance pilots and flight attendants needed to be informed as they would be transporting warfighters exposed to Ebola explained Mr. Crippen. Company leadership knew it was essential to communicate with every element to convey the importance of mission because the people—the heroes—being brought home were being shunned. Atlas leaders talked to pilots, flight attendants, and maintenance, telling them to call the Chairman or President, who would be available 24-hours a day, should there be any issues. Communication with every element that touches aircraft, troops, and the flight crewmembers, as well as planning, were essential to ensure things ran smoothly.

Mr. Hilburn said that for Crowley, trust and relationships are essential to operations like OUA. Crowley got involved because it had the capability and speed to respond to the situation. As soon as the company became aware of the situation, it put a capability briefing together because it had the relationships and partners in Liberia that Crowley thought would be useful to DLA. 

The success of the mission can be directly attributed to how military and commercial partners were able to set the theater—and relationships were key to doing that. The US provided large-scale presence and support, which gave the people of Liberia hope, and reinforced the message to the Liberian people that the mission was important and the people of the United States supported them.


By Sharon Lo Managing Editor, Defense Transportation Journal and The Source

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