Within 45 minutes of the massive Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami hitting the northeast of Japan on March 11, the country’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces had sortied their first ship from the fleet anchorage at Yokosuka, the destroyer Kurasame, sending it north. With 24 hours, 17 MSDF ships had been sent north. In less than a week, over 100,000 members of the Self-Defense Forces, hundreds of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, and more than 50 percent of the fleet was at work in the affected zone, doing everything from search and rescue, to sheltering displaced persons.
As naval support of the Tohoku emergency winds down, it’s a good time to consider how Japan might better address future disaster contingencies, as well as the country’s role in the world. Capitalizing on its recent experiences and those of other countries, Japan can build a pioneering fleet dedicated to disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, for both home and abroad. Such a fleet, under civilian control, would be a welcome sight both in Japan and abroad, in the aftermath of regional catastrophes and in regular visits to isolated Pacific communities that would welcome medical and technical assistance.
Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief missions are typically supported by naval vessels. The March Tohoku emergency, as well as the January 2010 Haitian earthquake, saw multinational fleets sortieing to the assistance of island nations. In both instances, natural disasters disrupted local airports and port facilities, slowing the flow of relief into the disaster zone. The design of naval vessels, such as the USS Essex in Tohoku and the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour in Haiti, made them key to opening up affected areas. Self-sufficient in food and power, and designed to serve a large expeditionary force, such ships are designed to project large amounts of military force abroad into less than ideal conditions. If one substitutes aid and assistance for force, the usefulness of naval designs is readily apparent. It’s no wonder then that Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief missions are typically carried out by naval vessels.