Shaping New Global Disaster Mitigation Capabilities from the Sea: The Creation of IntSAR


By Robbin Laird

It is not often that one is present at the creation of new organization focused on providing a positive response to global crises.

But such is the case of being able to interview the head of IntSAR and to talk about their plans for providing for global relief.

That new organization is headed by Peter Cowell, Chair of the IntSAR Admiralty Board. Admiral Peter Cowell brings 27 years of service to the organization, with his extensive experience across Intelligence, Security, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism. Originally enlisted in the Australian Army Reserve where he served for 6 years, half of which was in the Armored Recon Regiment 1st/15th RNSWL (Cavalry). the other half with the corps of Engineers. Cowell undertook additional training including basic Intel training which sparked his interest in specializing within this field.

I had a chance to talk with Cowell recently to learn about the launch of the organization, its focus, its innovative approach to leveraging capabilities to get the job done and their way ahead as an organization.

The organization’s website described IntSAR as follows:

“An International diplomatic initiative establishing a predominantly volunteer multi-national service with diplomatic recognition and rank equivalence to defense and emergency service agencies around the globe. Governed under the Memorandum of Understanding leading to the drafting of the IntSAR Treaty to provide a large-scale natural disaster response, augmenting sea air rescue capabilities to member nations.”

IntSAR is a multi-governmental agency focused on disaster response. Currently, the organization has thirty contributing member nations.

According to the organization: “It is the mission of the IntSAR Admiralty and staff to establish IntSAR as a truly multigovernmental disaster response and humanitarian aid service with a diplomatic mechanism of international cooperation, which is premised on the well-developed, accepted principles of sovereignty and non-intervention.

“This shall be a professional para-military and neutral force that is ready and standing to help in times of need, with the additional augmented role of sea air rescue in the vicinity of any IntSAR units upon request and in compliance with maritime law.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the approach being taken is to have a multi-national board of experienced maritime operators who are retired from several national navies, who have decades of experience in operating in the world’s maritime domain.

In addition to recruiting retired talent at the leadership level, the organization is recruiting retired military operators who have served their various nations in the past, have extensive experience with maritime operations and air sea rescue.

This is an untapped capability which is being leveraged and mobilized by IntSAR.

In addition to personnel, the organization is focused on mobilizing equipment that could be used in such an effort but are considered surplus by member nations.

This is how the website puts it: “IntSAR intends to refurbish and operate primarily ex-military and government assets that have been donated by our member nations in order to both assist IntSAR in achieving its mission and to reduce waste and disposal costs of military and government assets.

“The donated ships and aircraft will see a much extended service life through their donation to IntSAR, rather than the alternatives of being sunk, moored or parked in the desert.”

In other words, it is an organization being stood up in Australia, which includes a number of member states, who are contributing leadership and personnel who are retired and are looking to shape fleets which can operate for disaster relief from the sea with serviceable equipment.

The goal is to have global reach to perform the mission.

And the way they intend to do so will be to build out a global capability which ideally would see the formation of 14 fleets worldwide.

This is how the website puts it: At its final operational capability, IntSAR shall be comprised of 14 fleets stationed strategically around the globe to be able to react swiftly to any disaster or emergency situation, whilst remaining in as stable geological location as possible in order to remain unaffected from potential natural disasters in the area.

Each fleet will be operated and manned by disaster management, search & rescue, medical, logistics, maritime and aviation specialists in order to provide the expertise required for all aspects of disaster mitigation and recovery.

Each fleet shall be comprised of:

  • Hospital Helicopter Carriers
  • Search & Rescue / Mortuary Ships
  • Engineering Landing Ships
  • Container Ships
  • Potable Water Plant / Tanker Ships
  • Underway Replenishment Ships
  • Counter-Piracy Corvettes, and
  • Mine Sweepers

Each fleet shall be supplemented by the following capabilities:

  • Long-Range Search & Rescue Fixed-Wing Aircraft
  • Long And Medium-Range Cargo / Transport Aircraft
  • Various Rotary-Wing Aircraft For Casualty Evacuation, Search & Rescue, Transport, Etc
  • Construction And Engineering Battalions For Debris Clearance And Infrastructure Repair/Rebuilding
  • Ground Transport Squadrons For Logistic And Transport Movements On Land
  • Encrypted And High Throughput Communications Systems For Effective Command And Control

What Cowell highlighted in the interview is that the focus of the organization was, in effect, on disaster mitigation.

The focus is not simply responding, it is about shaping a proactive capability designed from the outset to mitigate in disaster situations.

In effect, the organization is focused on building modular task forces focused on disaster mitigation, which can deploy and reinforce efforts of member nations disaster relief efforts. When an IntSAR task force arrives, they would come under the direction of the nation which needs what the task force can provide, according to Cowell.

And in common with modern military efforts, such task forces are built around connectivity. They have partnered with an American C2 company brings deployable connectivity with cyber capabilities built into the C2 infrastructure.

Put in other words, this is a 21st century approach to shaping modular task forces, even in the disaster mitigation area of operations.

And notably, the task forces clearly need counter-piracy defense capabilities as well.

Cowell noted that the company involved provides a “fully integrated communications including sat coms between the headquarters and the fleet units with the personnel onshore in the disaster zone.”

And this done in a secure communications environment, which is required given global terrorism and disrupters clearly a part of the global domain.

Currently, the IntSAR team is working a key next step, to secure a primary diplomatic sponsor nation to establish IntSAR as a multi-governmental disaster response initiative.

Australia would be a nation ideally suited for such a role, and negotiations are underway to work such a possibility.

The initial IntSAR Budget of USD $800million has been sourced and is held for Initial Start-up costs.

Hopefully, the pathway being shaped by the organization becomes a successful launch pad for the way ahead, for such an innovative approach in the current global situation would make a contribution even beyond its core mission of disaster relief.