After 2011 Japan earthquake, US military learned to play supporting role in disaster relief

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Hugo Roman from Camp Fuji assists in the clearing of the airport in Sendai, Japan, after it was severly damaged after the 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami hit the area on March 11, 2011. U.S. forces cleared the runway of hundreds of wrecked cars and other debris enabling the airport to receive humanitarian aid.


By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 8, 2016

One of the toughest lessons the U.S. military learned from Operation Tomodachi is that it sometimes has to fight its natural inclination to take charge and instead needs to synch its actions more closely with a host nation’s requests.

“They’re in the lead. They make the decisions; it’s their country,” said Jim Welsh, branch chief for training and education at the Honolulu-based Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, which operates under U.S. Pacific Command.

The U.S. pumped 24,000 troops, 200 aircraft and two dozen ships into Operation Tomodachi after a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck northeast Japan five years ago. Analysis of the mission found a number of valuable lessons that include pre-designating a lead task force and preparing partner nations through joint exercises and pre-positioned equipment.

“The whole military decision-making cycle is observe, reorient, take action, figure out what you did, then change it for the better the next time,” Welsh said. “I think we try to do that with each of these missions.”

The revelation that sometimes it’s best to resist the military mindset of “take the initiative, take charge” has led the U.S. to seek “the best bang for the buck” in disaster response by helping its Pacific partners prepare for disasters long before they occur, Welsh said.

For example, the Army Corps of Engineers, III Marine Expeditionary Force and the U.S. Agency for International Development invested heavily in projects in Nepal in anticipation of a predicted earthquake, which struck last April and killed more than 8,000 people.

“There were probably several hundred [disaster-preparation] activities over five years,” Welsh said.

Those projects “are sometimes forgotten in the immediate chaos of the disaster, but pre-disaster activities in support of the affected state are probably way more important than the actual disaster response in the long run,” he said.

The crisis in Japan served as a shot of adrenaline to accelerate pre-disaster planning that was underway in both Nepal and the Philippines, before it was hit by the massive Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013, Welsh said. It served as a reminder that if a first-world country with a major economy could be so rocked by a disaster, then less developed nations are even more vulnerable.

Another key lesson from Tomodachi was the need to establish a joint task force structure for the region, said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rodney Legowski, who has been involved in several major disaster-relief efforts in the Pacific, first as a member of an operations planning team in Okinawa during Tomodachi. He served as the operations officer for the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade on Okinawa during Haiyan and the Nepal earthquake.

“From the purely command-and-control perspective, the biggest lesson learned from Tomodachi was that somebody needs to be designated by PACOM to be the lead,” Legowski said.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, PACOM designated U.S. Forces Japan as the operational joint task force command for relief efforts. Within a few days, however, that command was shifted to an ad hoc joint support force.

“I think they learned throughout that operation and afterwards that [USFJ] was not really designed, trained, manned to perform that function as a [joint task force] operational command,” he said.

PACOM subsequently took a harder look at how its crisis-response framework was designed, he said. Within that structure, each service has specific tasks and capabilities that are on alert to conduct humanitarian assistance and respond to other types of crisis throughout the region.

As a result of Tomodachi and the framework review, PACOM designated III Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa to lead military operations during humanitarian and disaster-relief missions in the Pacific.

The framework makes clear that the chain of decision-making, militarily, begins with PACOM, then moves down to Marine Forces Pacific, to III MEF and then to 3rd MEB as the lead element of Joint Task Force 505, he said. That plan was in place for Haiyan and the Nepal earthquake, and Legowski credits it for the U.S.’s swift responses in those cases.

The designation of III MEF as lead organization “was the critical thing that came out of Tomodachi, because now nobody was guessing about who was going to be assigned as the lead,” he said. “Everybody knew who to coordinate with to potentially deploy capabilities if there was a real-world requirement.”

Cementing III MEF as the lead has allowed it to build relationships from one crisis to the next. That has led to smoother interactions with the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, the USAID arm that leads and coordinates the government’s response to overseas disasters.

After Haiyan, the foreign disaster assistance office created a billet at III MEF headquarters to help facilitate training and cooperation, with the idea that the person in that position will deploy with the Marines during disasters, Legowski said.

After Tomodachi, Marine Corps Forces Pacific also looked at how to better prepare and speed up responses in the Philippines, for whatever the crisis might be, he said.

“They made the decision to pre-position equipment sets down there for our use and also for the Filipinos’ use, specifically the Philippine Marine Corps,” Legowski said. “That helped because it enabled us to limit our footprint and pull stuff out of that equipment-allowance pool and utilize it for the response.”

Both Legowski and Welsh emphasized that every natural disaster in the Pacific is unique because of the wide variety of terrain, populations, governance and domestic capabilities among the nations.

But as extraordinary as Japan’s 2011 disaster was, it did provide one overarching lesson.

“I don’t necessarily agree that there will never be a disaster like that again,” Legowski said. “We’re always preparing for the worst, looking at the worst-case scenario.”

Twitter: @WyattWOlson


Air Force Tech. Sgt. Luis Cantu helps remove debris Friday from a destroyed neighborhood in Noda Village, after the fishing village was ravaged by a March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. Some 24,000 U.S. troops took part in relief efforts.