The strong earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12th, triggered a quick and massive response from the U.S. armed forces. Within 24 hours, an aircraft carrier, three amphibious ships and a destroyer were on the way to provide assistance. The carriers and amphibious ships provide helicopters, relief supplies, equipment, hospital facilities, communications and housing for relief workers. The destroyer is there to provide offshore logistics support for U.S. Coast Guard personnel already there. The navy is helping to get equipment into the Haiti to repair port facilities. The army has alerted a brigade of troops, as well as engineers and medical personnel, for movement to the stricken island nation. The air force was actually there first, with a team of specially trained airmen, equipped to fly in and get a wrecked airport quickly working again. They did this with the country's main airport.
It was the United States Navy that rediscovered, over the last decade, the benefit of rapidly providing humanitarian aid. Such assistance is not only welcome in countries that need it, but something that the American military is uniquely equipped to take care of. It's not difficult to switch the payload from weapons to relief supplies and move out. This has led to all the services adopting more training programs that only involve humanitarian operations.
The U.S. Air Force has found its air dropped supplies particularly welcome in remote areas that are devastated, and difficult to reach by land routes. The army and air force even run drills, to hone their skills in rapidly mobilizing relief supplies and getting them on aircraft. The U.S. military even stockpiles relief supplies, knowing that there will always be emergencies in the future.
The army and marines have lots of training programs devoted to "civil affairs" (dealing with local civilians in a war, or disaster, zone.) Not to be outdone, the U.S. Navy has a fleet of amphibious ships that can be quickly ordered to head for disaster areas. For example, the navy's Wasp class amphibious ships displace 40,000 tons each and are basically aircraft carriers that also carry landing craft and over a thousand marines. The medical facilities on the ship can treat 600 casualties, using four main and two emergency operating rooms, plus all the other facilities you'd expect to find in a hospital.
The 40 or so helicopters that can operate off the flight deck of a Wasp class ship are a major asset during these post-disaster operations. The U.S. Navy has been enthusiastic about these disaster relief operations. The sailors and marines like to use their military skills for humanitarian operations, and the work is a form of useful training. The State Department likes these navy efforts as well, as they are very much appreciated by the victims and make the local politicians take a friendlier stance towards the United States. Thus the U.S. Navy also has adopted some training exercises for humanitarian missions.
The U.S. Air Force, noting the good will the U.S. Navy received for showing up quickly at several recent natural disasters, has built its own humanitarian quick reaction force. The 3rd Air Force has been revived and equipped with a special force of six C-130 transports. These, along with 100 personnel and a hundred tons of relief supplies, can be on their way within 16 hours of being asked. It used to take much longer. But time is of the essence in most natural disasters.
Another problem needing assistance is the bottleneck created at the few working airports in a disaster area. The 3rd Air Force will provide help in unscrambling that as well. The air force has developed quick response air control teams, which can go into place where large aircraft can land, and quickly set up the radio and radar needed to make the air traffic control work.
The 3rd Air Force is expecting to support the new Africa Command (AFRICOM) as well as the older European Command (EUCOM). While waiting for the next disaster, 3rd Air Force is developing working relationships with the major NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations, like the Red Cross and such), and nations that might be needing help in the future.
These peacekeeping functions are only a small part of what the 3rd Air Force does. Its 25,000 personnel and 200 aircraft are mainly devoted to supporting possible combat operations in Europe. But in cases like Haiti, the weapons are kept out of the way, and all effort goes to saving lives.