May 13, 2013: China recently got a chance to use its new photo satellite and UAV capabilities under something approaching combat conditions. In this case the enemy was a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in April and the mission was to bring emergency aid to over 12,000 injured people and several hundred thousand who were homeless in Sichuan province. China promptly ordered nearly 20,000 troops, along with over a thousand trucks, helicopters, and fixed wing aircraft to join the relief effort.
The military deployed dozens of UAVs, manned aircraft, and photo-satellites to survey and monitor the disaster area to determine where the biggest need was and what road and cross country routes were available for the troops to use for quick access. This was also a major emergency use of China’s new Beidou GPS system. The military quickly obtained over 500 Beidou receivers and distributed them to the troops.
Chinese helicopters and transports were also equipped with Beidou receivers and commanders were able to move these aircraft around more efficiently because of the Beidou tracking. China also used a lot of other satellite based communications. For example, doctors in the disaster zone had access to medical specialists via satellite TV links.
The military quickly got teams of troops to the worst hit areas and these were able to order in food, water, and medical supplies. Some of these were dropped by parachute to areas which were particularly inaccessible. The first teams on the ground were also able to quickly determine where the special rescue teams (who could hunt survivors in rubble) should be sent.
The military also made the most of the publicity opportunities, especially since only a few weeks earlier the government had issued orders for the military to spend more time preparing for disasters like this. In light of that, journalists were advised to concentrate on the positive aspects of the disaster. The bureaucrats did not want more of the bad press the government got during an even deadlier earthquake back in 2008. Back then, over 80,000 people were killed in the mid-May earthquakes and millions made homeless. In that case the media had a field day exposing local corruption that allowed flimsy public building to go up (and quickly come down during an earthquake). Thousands of school children died because of that. The journalists also reported the shortcomings of using troops for relief work. After three months disaster relief duty in central China, the army began withdrawing the 130,000 troops sent in to help. Some of the troops remained until the end of the year.
For over a decade now Chinese troops have been increasingly used for disaster relief and responded quickly for the 2008 earthquake. This was one of the largest such deployments ever, with over six percent of all armed forces personnel sent in. The media exposure of problems the troops had alarmed and angered the government, who saw the journalists ignoring all the good the troops were doing. Since then the military has added disaster relief training for commanders and troops and prepared more effective plans for these operations. The government tweaked its Internet censorship software and procedure to catch and delete negative reports about the disaster and relief efforts. While many Internet users may not see those deleted comments, government officials do and seek ways to fix problems that are fixable. Now the government wants more attention directed at how some corruption was addressed (so that buildings put up after the 2008 quakes held up in the current earthquake) and that the troops have gotten more effective at bringing aid to earthquake victims. These censorship efforts are noted. Chinese also notice that the government is no less fanatical about controlling what is reported about these disasters. Most Chinese believe that government suppression of free speech is expanding and that is very unpopular with the general population.