May 24, 2011: The May 12th earthquake in southwest China three years ago, was a major test for the armed forces, especially the army and, to a lesser extent, the air force. The army had long been used for disaster relief, but until the last few decades, lack of mobility (most army units had few trucks) made it difficult to bring in troops quickly, over long distances. This has changed, and in the last decade military units have planned, and actually trained, to quickly move to a disaster area and do rescue and recovery work. But the 2008 quake made it clear, after the details of military involvement were studied, that there was room for improvement.
Within hours of the quake, over 6,000 troops were in the disaster area or on the way. Another 5,000 troops had been ordered in. By May 13th there were 6,500 troops on the scene. By the 14th, there were nearly 20,000 troops in the disaster zone, most of them flown in. There were about 15,000 local reservists and 5,000 additional police in the area as well. Another 30,000 uniformed personnel were in transit (most of them military.) Three days after the earthquake, there were 130,000 military personnel in the disaster area. By the 16th, there were 75 helicopters in the area, 80 percent of them military. There were thousands of military medical specialists, and their field hospitals, in place to deal with nearly 400,000 who were injured. Military engineers were at work repairing roads, bridges and tunnels.
There were problems. Many of the 70,000 who died in the quake could have been saved if help had arrived within 36 hours. But the Chinese air force only had 14 Il-76 heavy transports (similar to U.S. C-17s), and it took time to get civilian aircraft (even from state controlled airlines), especially the less common freighter models. Moreover, you need those military transports to quickly move vehicles, especially the ones used by engineer and rescue units the Chinese army had ready for just such emergencies. The military did not have an adequate plan to use available military reconnaissance equipment to monitor the disaster area and get aid to the people needing it the most. This was an opportunity for China's UAVs to shine and, all too often, they didn't arrive in time.
In other words, while the massive response quickly put a lot of troops into the disaster area, better emergency planning and more heavy airlift would have saved a lot of lives. For example, more of the 500 available military helicopters could have been sent in, if only there were emergency plans in place for the orders to be quickly given and carried out.
These shortcomings got out to the Chinese public, despite efforts to control the news, and this forced the government to make a real effort to improve emergency plans, and to include prompt calls for foreign assistance. There are some scarce resources, like high-resolution spy satellites and earthquake rescue teams, that expect to spend most of their time working outside their own country, and expect to get that kind of help if their own country is hit with a massive disaster. The Chinese people appear to understand this more than their government, and new disaster plans have been modified to quickly call for the international level resources.
In 2008, the Chinese government was forced, by information leaking out onto the Internet, to drop its initial orders to keep the media out and "control the story." The result was Chinese media giving lots of coverage to the massive military rescue efforts. The army had recently received new combat/work uniforms, so they looked good on TV as well. Every little bit helps. And the troops were there for a while, since the quake, and the aftershocks, weakened hundreds of dams in the region. This required disciplined manpower to evacuate threatened populations, examine and monitor the dams, and make repairs. As a result of the military's preparations, a disaster turned into a showcase for how professional and competent the troops had become. Sure, it wasn't a war, but it was the next best thing (a stressful situation that required discipline, planning and good leadership to overcome.)
The military also learned about something they had not expected. In the wake of the relief efforts, army doctors found themselves faced with thousands of soldiers exhibiting strange symptoms. These included severe fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitations, headaches, excessive sweating, dizziness, disturbed sleep, fainting and flashbacks to traumatic situations encountered during the weeks of working in the earthquake zone. A few of the army doctors recognized the symptoms as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). It had been over three decades since Chinese soldiers experienced combat, and there are only stories left of its after-effects. Some of the oldest NCOs and officers vaguely remember, when they first entered military service, hearing about veterans of the 1979 battles on the Vietnamese border, suffering from combat fatigue.
PTSD is not unusual for relief workers at the site of particularly horrendous disasters. The recent earthquakes in central China were the kind of disaster that only occurs every generation or two. And this was the first one in which so many troops were mobilized, so quickly, to help out. Thus many of these soldiers saw the aftereffects when they were still fresh, and at their most horrific. Chinese doctors are consulting the growing body of medical knowledge and research on PTSD, particularly work done in the U.S. to treat the many soldiers exposed to the stress of working in wartime Iraq. Chinese military doctors estimate that up to 20 percent of the soldiers who performed relief duty in the earthquake zone, now have PTSD. Many civilian workers are similarly affected, and also need treatment.