ARLINGTON, Va. — Top defense officials have ruled out airdropping food, water and medical supplies over Haiti, fearing that chaos would be the unintended result.

“It seems to me that without having any structure on the ground, in terms of distribution, that an airdrop is simply going to lead to riots as people try and go after that stuff,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday.

On Thursday, an Air Force official said that a lack of fuel and equipment was slowing air operations at the Port-au-Prince airport.

The first of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s 19 helicopters have since arrived in the Haitian capital, and they will be critical to distributing relief supplies, Gates said.

A force of between 9,000 and 10,000 U.S. servicemembers is on its way to Haiti, said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A large portion of those troops will remain on ships off the island’s coast, but the Defense Department is “poised” to send more ground forces if the head of U.S. Southern Command and the commander on the ground feel it’s necessary, Mullen said.

U.S. troops’ primary mission will be to deliver relief supplies, not provide security, Gates said.

Right now, the security situation in Haiti “remains OK,” he said.

“The key is to get the food and the water in there as quickly as possible, so that people don’t in their desperation turn to violence,” he said.

The 2,000 Marines headed to Haiti are capable of conducting a variety of missions ranging from humanitarian relief to combat operations, said Capt. Clark Carpenter, a spokesman for the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“We’ll be able to support any number of things that come at us,” Carpenter said Friday. “We’re able to support more than just the relief effort, if that’s necessary.”

The Marines are expected to arrive off Haiti next week.

When asked if the U.S. response to the Haitian earthquake is moving quickly enough, Gates said he did not see how it could have been faster.

“There are just some certain facts of life that affect how quickly you can do some of these things,” he said. “The collapse of the infrastructure in Haiti, the small size of the airport, the time it takes a ship to get from Point A to Point B — those are all just facts of life,” he said.

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