When disaster strikes, US military assets often key to relief efforts
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — It was a familiar scene as the USS George Washington reached the Philippines this week: the U.S. military rushing to the aid of hundreds of thousands suffering from a natural disaster.
U.S. aircraft carriers loaded with equipment, supplies and thousands of troops have shown up early to some of the world’s worst disasters over the past decade, including tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia and a deadly earthquake in Haiti.
The massive ships are a potent symbol of U.S. power — and charity. Disaster relief has become a key mission for the United States and a way to exercise the softer side of its military influence overseas.
Such relief work is especially valuable now in the typhoon- and earthquake-prone Pacific, where the Obama administration is proposing that the U.S. refocus its military and diplomatic efforts following the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. humanitarian assistance often includes Marines on the ground within hours or days of a calamity to clear supply routes and airports, then a larger force, led by the Navy and one of its carrier groups. Sailors can use helicopters to airlift disaster victims to safety, take part in search-and-rescue operations and provide medical treatment.
The aid is seen as a way to cement key relationships.
Japan ranks among the most important U.S. security partners. The country hosts a large concentration of the U.S. forces stationed in the Pacific, an arrangement that Tokyo has managed for years despite some loud domestic protests.
In 2011, the USS Ronald Reagan arrived off Japan’s northeastern coast following a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that claimed more than 20,000 lives and scraped away communities along hundreds of miles of coastline. Marines were among the first to reach the Sendai airport, working to clear hundreds of jumbled vehicles and help Japan reopen the key transportation hub.
The effort was named Operation Tomodachi, which means “friend” in Japanese. The mission was widely hailed by the military and U.S. government as proof of the two nations’ close relationship and security agreement.
But the good will isn’t limited to just allies — the military has rushed in to help others, too.
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson arrived in Haiti in January 2010, days after an earthquake killed 230,000 people, injured about 300,000 and destroyed or severely damaged a quarter-million homes. The carrier brought 19 helicopters to deliver badly needed relief supplies. About 2,000 Marines also assisted the island nation in the aftermath.
In Haiti, the U.S. had little to gain strategically. The small island nation is mostly known in the United States for its ineffective government and illegal immigration. A recent coup had led to limited military intervention.
The Navy was also called to action in December 2004 when one of the worst tsunami disasters on record occurred following an earthquake in the Indian Ocean.
About 286,000 people died in the surge of water that struck 14 countries, according to the World Bank. In less than a week, the USS Abraham Lincoln was deployed off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province, which suffered most of the deaths and destruction. The crew ferried food, water and medical supplies to survivors.
Indonesia is a trade partner, though beyond regional humanitarian and disaster relief exercises, the U.S. has few military or strategic ties with the country, other than a desire to stem terrorism in the world’s largest Muslim country.
But sometimes disaster relief efforts do touch on national security and military strategy.
With Typhoon Haiyan, disaster struck an old U.S. military partner — and a potentially valuable host for forward-deployed military forces in the future.
Up to 10,000 are thought to have died and more than 600,000 displaced due to Haiyan.
The initial disaster relief mission this week, headed by Marines and the George Washington, provided blankets, food and some evacuations for Filipinos in the Tacloban and Samar area who saw their coastal communities battered to rubble and splinters by the super typhoon on Nov. 8.
The United States, in coordination with the Philippine government, provided plastic sheeting for shelter, toothpaste, soap and feminine products. The lack of basic necessities such as fresh water and food led to desperate pleas and looting in the days after the storm.
The mission there has been dubbed Operation Damayan, a Tagalog word Filipinos loosely translate as “helping each other” — an echo of the 2011 operation with Japan.
The U.S. military has kept a close friendship with the Philippines, even after the country closed sprawling American bases in 1992.
The U.S. government has responded to 40 disasters there since then. The Marines also hold regular military exercises with their Philippine counterparts, and there has been a steady counterterrorism training presence since 2002 to help in the fight against Muslim extremists in the south.
Lt. Gen. John Wissler, the commanding general of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, told media in the Philippines this week that the relief effort was second nature to the hundreds of Marines deployed from Okinawa, Japan.
The Obama administration is keen to ratchet up the military relationship with its ally and had been negotiating with Manila over rotating troops through Philippine bases, much like a recently inked arrangement that will place thousands of Marines in Australia’s Northern Territory.
As the typhoon disaster was unfolding this week, Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. is looking toward “occasional rotational presences” so it can partner with allies in the region to deal with humanitarian and disaster relief.
Such efforts are aimed at national security, Little said.
“One of the linchpins of that is to continue to invest in our allies and our partnerships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region where we have had bases open and close over the years,” he said.
Food, water and shelter may be a well-timed and needed investment in the Philippines.
But even if the contribution does not lead to an agreement on troop rotations, the U.S. military and its aircraft carriers will likely remain a key player in relief efforts when disaster strikes.