Within 45 minutes of the massive Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami hitting the northeast of Japan on March 11, the country’s Maritime Self-Defence 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-Defence 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.
A large ship of a naval design would be an ideal platform for responding to Japan’s natural disasters. Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands, and more than a third of Japan’s population lives within ten kilometers of the coast. Although most islands are connected in one way or another, earthquakes and tsunamis can incapacitate those connections, damaging bridges and ferry docks. A disaster relief vessel could simply sail from one island to the next to provide assistance. Furthermore, Japan's terrain is mostly mountainous, with communities often connected by roads and railroads cutting through rugged terrain. While a disaster might close such routes to emergency traffic, a HA/DR vessel could simply sail around them.
A DR/HA vessel for Japan should have several qualities. First, the ship should have medical facilities on par with most hospitals. The USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship, is equipped with six operating rooms, 17 ICU wards, a CT scanner, ultrasound machine, an x-ray lab, and laboratories. Makin Island is also equipped with an advanced communications suite allowing its doctors to use telemedicine to consult with other doctors thousands of miles away.
Another valuable feature is a full-length flight deck, similar to those on aircraft carriers, or the MSDF amphibious vessels of the Oosumi-class. Several local airfields in the earthquake or tsunami zone were damaged or knocked out, and MSDF and US Navy vessels, particularly the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, were used to refuel search and rescue helicopters that could not be serviced on shore. The ability to embark and service a large number of helicopters would be critical, at least until airfields on shore were re-opened.
The third design feature borrowed from naval amphibious ships is the idea of a well deck. A well deck is similar to a dry dock; a large area inside a ship that may be flooded with seawater, allowing flat-bottomed transport watercraft to enter and exit the vessel. The value of a well deck and accompanying boats was proven in the Tohoku earthquake, when many docks and piers were damaged by the tsunami or blocked by debris. Hovercraft from JDS Oosumi were able to locate flat stretches of beach and land directly on shore, bypassing damaged port facilities.
The best candidate for a Japan HA/DR vessel is an off-the-shelf design, such as the French Mistral class of amphibious vessels. The Mistral class has both a full-length flight deck and a well deck, making it capable of supporting disasters on the ground by air and sea. At $800 million each, the Mistral class costs up to 30 percent less than a domestically-built destroyer. For less than 5 percent of the annual Japanese defence budget, two could be purchased, ensuring at least one would be on station and ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice.
Although the MSDF led the way in responding to the Tohoku earthquake at sea, the missions of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief aren’t necessarily military missions. Furthermore, the deployment of a Self-Defence Forces vessel abroad, even in a disaster relief mission, could run afoul of constitutional and policy issues. An ideal place to put Japan's HA/DR fleet is under the jurisdiction of the Japan Coast Guard. Like the US Coast Guard, the JCG doesn’t fall under the arm of government devoted to national defence, but rather under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
Like the US Coast Guard, the Japan Coast Guard has experience in disaster relief missions. During the Tohoku Earthquake, the JCG searched for survivors, provided food and aid to refugees, cleared port facilities of debris, and provided security around the damaged nuclear plans. Given that any future earthquake will almost certainly have a great impact on Japan’s coastal communities, it makes sense to place in a maritime agency.
In addition to disaster relief, these ships could also perform regular tours of the Pacific, dropping in on outposts of humanity to provide medical, dental, veterinary, and engineering assistance. Much as the US Navy’s annual Pacific Partnership mission visits places such as East Timor, Micronesia, Vietnam, and Thailand, a Japanese ship could perform an identical mission, and even take turns alternating with the US Navy’s programme. Like Pacific Partnership, the ships could be staffed by Japanese NGOs and even include crew members from Japan’s Pacific allies, including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
The addition of a fleet of HA/DR vessels to Japan's national capability would a wise investment for the future. The building of purpose-built vessels designed to assist neighbours in the event of emergencies would signal a new, engaged Japan that has successfully translated its economic power into a practical soft power asset, and stands ready to assist any neighbour as resolutely as if that neighbour were struck by military or terrorist attack.
Between humanitarian tours of the Pacific Rim and South Pacific, as well as natural disasters such as typhoons, floods, tsunamis and earthquakes, such a fleet of vessels wouldn’t be idle. The service they could provide the Japanese people, and the goodwill they could generate abroad, could be of far greater value than resources spent on military power. If Japan wants to assume the role of regional leader, it could start by becoming the premier disaster response nation in the Pacific Rim.