It Is Time for a Regional Network of Disaster Response Hubs

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Senior Researcher of JFSS Robert D. Eldridge. 

Although there are many differences between the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, and the Heisei 28 Nen Kumamoto Earthquake of April 14-16, 2016, one of the several similarities seen was the importance of air operations—namely, the rapid delivery of supplies, insertion of rescue workers, doctors and nurses, disaster response officials, civilian NGOs and NPOs, and military personnel, and extraction of those injured requiring medical care or in need of evacuation.

In the case of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the 800-km coast was pounded by the tsunami and caused hamlets and whole communities to become isolated. In the case of the Kumamoto disaster, roads were buried and bridges collapsed or were otherwise rendered unusable due to the earthquake and landslides.

Air operations were also vitally important in the Philippines in November 2013, during Operation Damayan. At that time, especially, due to the local airport being destroyed and the inability for large aircraft to land, it was the Okinawa-based Ospreys who went to the rescue, arriving there before the Philippine central government was able to render help. The Ospreys flew 349 missions, delivering tons of supplies and hundreds of personnel into the disaster area, and hundreds more injured and vulnerable civilians out of it. One shudders to think what would have happened if the Marines did not arrive when they did.

However, as contemporary militaries will acknowledge and even welcome, disaster responses need to be whole of government, as well as the private sector including non-government and non-profit organizations. Regional and International Organizations are also part of the equation.

Disaster response however remains ad hoc. Systems, both domestically and internationally differ. Lessons are not always preserved. People change jobs. Capabilities among nations vary. Each disaster, furthermore, is unlike the previous one.

Permanent disaster response hubs, where airfields and/or ports are maintained, supplies stocked, international teams standing by, need to be developed regionally. These hubs would include or become Centers of Excellence, where training of foreign militaries and civilian personnel could be trained and networks of expertise can be developed. Trust and transparency would be an added outcome.

These hubs should be developed along the first island chain—from mainland Japan through the Southern Philippines, and perhaps beyond, to Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, to tap into their geographical locations as well as experience with disasters and disaster response. Importantly, Taiwan, a modern, democratic nation, who has helped Japan financially and emotionally after its disasters, should be included.

This series of hubs, several hundred kilometers apart, would be mutually reinforcing, which is something needed due to the wide distances involved.

Within Japan, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, shared with the Maritime Self-Defense Forces and which played a key role in supporting the Kumamoto disaster, and which will play the key role in a Nankai Trough megaquake/tsunami scenario, would be one hub, Saga Airport, 299 km to the west and which will be receiving the Ground Self-Defense Forces’ seventeen V-22 Ospreys, should be the next pillar.

From there, 815 km to the south MCAS Futenma should be made a shared use facility with the SDF and made into a disaster hub, as promoted by this author and some local residents, in light of its safe record, high elevation (not in the inundation zone), and increased space due to the departure in 2014 of the KC-130s to Iwakuni. (If necessary, Amami Airport, 527 km from Saga, or another airfield in the Amami group could be utilized if the distances were deemed too great.)

From Futenma southward 300 km the next hub should be at Shimoji Jima Airport, a sadly unused facility with a 3000-meter runway and vacant buildings and housing, which local residents and current and former members of the SDF have viewed as ideal as a humanitarian assistance/disaster relief center. From there, approximately 550 km to the south is Taiwan’s Tainan Air Base, with its massive runway, and its Naval Base at Kaoshiung. (A disaster response hub could also be established in the northern part of Taiwan, too.) And from there, Manila is about 850 km away, and from Manila to Cebu in the south, another 866 km. This network could be brought further south, or to the East, to Saipan or Guam and Hawaii, as well.

These democracies—Japan, U.S., Taiwan, and the Philippines (and Singapore and Indonesia if geographically stretched that far)—working together with a wealth of experience in disasters, would do much to promote cooperation in the region. The hubs would help bring this expertise together and quickly see cooperation materialize. If done right, this could eventually expand into other areas of security cooperation as well.

Eldridge is the author of many works related to disaster preparedness, including the soon-to-be published 『次の大震災に備えるために―アメリカ海兵隊の「トモダチ作戦」経験者たちが提言する軍民協力の新しいあり方―』(近代消防社、2016年). He served as the political advisor to USMC/USFJ Forward Command Element at Camp Sendai during Operation Tomodachi. He earned his Ph.D. in Japanese Political and Diplomatic History at Kobe University in 1999.