The long-standing U.S.–Japan relationship has come to perhaps its most important moment, as thousands of U.S. forces swing into action to help Japan recover from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck last week. Unfortunately, everything we and the Japanese are doing may not be enough to prevent much more widespread suffering along Japan’s ravaged northeastern coast.
Within days of the disaster, the USS Ronald Reagan reached the scene and its helicopters began assisting in search-and-rescue operations. Officials at the Japanese embassy told me that some of the Reagan’s pilots were exposed to elevated, though not dangerous, levels of radiation during their flights, all from the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors. Similarly, Marine helicopters from Okinawa have been moved north to help with ferrying supplies, while over 2,000 Marines will soon be on the ground next to Japanese Self-Defense Forces. The U.S. Air Force is flying in rescue teams and loads of supplies, and the Navy has moved nearly a dozen ships to Japanese waters. U.S. Forces Japan is coordinating much of the U.S. response with its Japanese military counterparts.
Yet given the scale of the humanitarian crisis, there is still more the United States can do. Since only helicopters can reach many of the stricken areas, every U.S. military helicopter in Japan and South Korea should either be moved to air bases in Japan’s north or be on call for immediate deployment. Further, helicopters from Hawaii should be moved to Japan. Japanese officials told me they have barely 100 heavy-lift helicopters operating right now, a number that can’t possibly ferry troops and supplies, deal with search and rescue, and evacuate injured citizens all at the same time.
Similarly, the USNS Mercy, America’s 1,000-bed naval hospital ship, is currently at port in San Diego. Given that many flooded communities are cut off from major roads, U.S. Pacific Command should consider moving the Mercy towards Japan to help with medical care for the thousands who may not be able to see doctors anytime soon. It would take at least two weeks or so for the Mercy to prepare for deployment and make the journey to Japan, but deciding to send it would be a powerful signal of U.S. resolve to do everything in our power to help our ally.
Though it will take years to recover, Japan will weather this storm with its own resources and its reserves of national strength. Still, America is playing and can play a vital role in helping bring relief to millions who are patiently waiting for the basic necessities of life that they took for granted until last Friday.
— Michael Auslin is director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute.