Helping a Friend in Need

October 2011
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine


A building stands surrounded by rubble in Wakuya, Miyagi, Japan, in March. Ships and aircraft from the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group conducted search and rescue operations and resupply missions as directed in support of operation Tomodachi.

The U.S. military finds the right way to help following the Japanese quake and tsunami.

The longtime, close relationship between the United States and Japan helped facilitate aid to the Asian nation stricken in March by the double blow of a powerful earthquake and a devastating tsunami.

Whether it is airlifting supplies over the Berlin Wall or responding to the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. military has a history of providing humanitarian aid in the wake of natural or manmade disasters. Never before has that secondary mission of the U.S. armed forces been put to the test more than it was this past spring in operation Tomodachi, or “Friend.”

On March 11, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake deep in the Pacific Ocean triggered one of the largest and most devastating tsunamis in recorded history. That tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan, wiping out countless communities and triggering a near-disaster at a nuclear power plant affected by the flooding.

Within hours of the initial reports of the Tohoku earthquake, the United States made what is being called “a very deliberate decision to quietly offer assistance” to Japan in the aftermath of the disaster, according to Lt. Gen. John F. Goodman, USMC (Ret.), executive director of the Center for Excellence (COE) in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. Based at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, the center is a Defense Department organization dedicated to international disaster preparedness. It is a direct reporting unit of the U.S. Pacific Command.

The idea, Gen. Goodman says, was not “to seek visibility,” but rather, “to provide what was needed in a way that was in harmony with the way that the Japanese were conducting their response.”

The U.S. military’s low-profile approach to offering relief to the Japanese was for both cultural and diplomatic reasons, according to Gen. Goodman. The United States has an unusual relationship with Japan. Harkening back to the response to the Indonesian earthquake several years ago, Gen. Goodman says most U.S. efforts in that Pacific Rim nation were coordinated through the U.S. embassy.

In Japan, however, the United States has not only an embassy, but also bases for the approximately 90,000 troops from all four military services that have been stationed there since the end of World War II. This, he explains, prompted the almost immediate dialogue over assistance in the hours after the earthquake.

The presence of U.S. Forces Japan—as the U.S. military is known officially and collectively in that nation—and the regular relationship with the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) also were factors, Gen. Goodman notes.

“We have a treaty with Japan. This is one ally talking to another. That tight military arrangement, he allows, helped smooth the path to the post-disaster response.

“We exercise several times a year with Japan and its ministries. Those exercises are very formal and big. Those exercises actually allow us the ability to talk to one another. We know them; we know their organizations, and so it’s a natural dialogue between treaty allies.”

The low-key approach to the U.S. response also is a reflection of the complicated, long-standing “love-hate” relationship the Japanese government and its people have over the presence of so many U.S. troops on its soil. On one hand, government officials openly support a Japanese-American security treaty, signed in the 1960s, that cements the alliance between the two nations. The arrangement saves Japan the cost of establishing its own military establishment, opposed by many pacifist Japanese who remember World War II.

At the same time, public sentiment against U.S. troops runs high in some local communities surrounding U.S. military facilities. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, where some U.S. military personnel have committed crimes against local citizens. This has prompted an agreement between both nations to close a Marine Corps air station by 2014. The United States also was supposed to relocate many of the Marines to Guam, but many still remain at the base on Okinawa. The impasse over the base prompted the resignation of the Japanese prime minister last year. Then, earlier this year, the United States and Japan agreed to relocate the Marine air facility to another location in Okinawa.

For those reasons, Gen. Goodman explains, it was vital that while providing help, U.S. forces also would be seen as working with, and under the primary direction of, the JSDF and civilian officials.

Aerographer’s Mate 2nd Class John Nicola, USN (r), Naval Air Facility Misawa, assists a Japanese man during a cleanup effort in March at the fishing port in Misawa, Japan.
Gen. Goodman says that at the height of the U.S. military involvement, as many as 24,000 U.S. troops were involved in the humanitarian response to the quake and tsunami. The USS Ronald Reagan stationed itself off the Japanese coast and became a landing and refueling stop for JSDF and U.S. Navy helicopters conducting rescue and relief operations. The Navy carrier had to reposition itself farther out to sea because of the fear of radiation from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

The U.S. Air Force opened its bases to relief flights all over the island, and two Air Force planes were used to provide airborne monitoring of radiation escaping from the Fukushima plant.

The U.S. Army, which has the smallest number of uniformed personnel located in Japan, helped distribute bottled water, blankets and other supplies to quake and tsunami victims. Within a month, a contingent of 280 U.S. Marines and Air Force personnel re-opened the flood-damaged airport at Sendai, the closest to the Fukushima plant, enabling larger shipments of relief supplies to be brought to survivors.

Gen. Goodman says he sent three members of his own COE staff to Japan, not only to monitor and document the humanitarian effort by the military, but also to join U.S. forces in the effort first-hand.

He characterizes as “extraordinary” the response of the Japanese military, led by its civilian government. The JSDF deployed more than 110,000 troops who were essential to the response effort.

In addition, Gen. Goodman says that because of years of joint training with the Japanese military, “The United States was also effective in supporting Japanese efforts, so this was about as good as it gets.” He also points out that this response to the quake and tsunami effectively was led by civilian officials making the best use of the nation’s advanced communications technology. This occurred despite the fact that Japanese government officials have faced mounting criticism of the post-disaster response to the failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Normally, the COE publishes a report on its findings in the wake of a huge U.S. military humanitarian effort like the response to the Japanese tsunami/quake. While the report is not yet out, Gen. Goodman says he and his staff already are integrating lessons learned into the work that his organization does to help other nations shore up their disaster response management.

Some key lessons were learned from the Japan humanitarian relief effort, Gen. Goodman reports. “The first lesson is that the U.S. military was reminded that every disaster is different and unique.” The U.S. military must be prepared to adapt any of its broad range of uniquely expeditionary capabilities to support the developing challenges that occur during an unfolding disaster situation. The very different combination of events that occurred during the Japan disaster required the military to adapt multiple exclusively military capabilities quickly to support response requirements, he explains.

“The second is that the military is one of a very few, if not the only, standing organizations that can quickly and effectively survey, measure and manage uncertain or complex nuclear, biological or chemical situations from land, sea and air.

“The third is that the interface and coordination between military and civilian consequence management and emergency management organizations are significantly more difficult than anticipated. Improved coordination processes and procedures are required,” the general contends.

Gen. Goodman and his staff spent the late summer on a globetrotting goodwill mission, visiting several regions to share those lessons learned and to assist in long-range earthquake and disaster preparedness efforts.

During July and August, he and the COE staff traveled to Nepal, where they participated in a disaster management/disaster response workshop for both the Nepalese military and government. To help increase Nepal’s preparedness for a major earthquake, many of the observations from both the Japanese and Haitian disasters were injected into the workshop.

Following the trip to Nepal, Gen. Goodman traveled to Germany, where 22 European countries from the Balkans were meeting to discuss improving their civil and military earthquake preparedness postures. Japanese tsunami lessons were integrated into the COE’s presentations to this group as well.

The final stop for the COE staff was the tiny Pacific island nation of Fiji. Not surprisingly, Gen. Goodman says, that nation is worried about a tsunami. “We’re now engaged with the Fijian government and their divisions and prefectures on helping them develop a civilian/military disaster preparedness capability and mitigation plans for major tsunamis in the South Pacific region.”

A U.S. Marine colonel from the U.S. Forces Japan staff and a Japanese Air Self Defense Force colonel from the Self Defense Force Joint Staff, both of whom had participated in the Japanese humanitarian response operations, were in Fiji talking about their efforts in earthquake and tsunami response, adding to the sharing of knowledge with that nation.

The lessons learned from the U.S. response in Japan also are being shared in the United States. This information is being integrated into training modules that the COE designs and conducts for combatant commanders from all four of the military services.

Regarding the military relief effort in Japan, Gen. Goodman notes that the primary focus of U.S. forces will always be on the defense of the United States. However, he says, “Those skills that they practice and use for day-to-day operations are very, very adaptable to disaster response situations. The U.S. military participates in these operations because they are needed. Their ability to apply their skills and adapt them quickly has been shown now for years.”

Gen. Goodman adds that the military also has training programs that help troops understand the nuances and challenges they will face when they go into that environment, as well as serving with people they are not accustomed to working with. The general says this also applies to colleagues such as Japanese military officials whom they are used to working with, but in other capacities.

Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance: 

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