By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 5, 2011 - The U.S. military will continue to stand squarely with Japan for as long as needed following the devastating earthquake, tsunami and radiological crisis, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander told American Forces Press Service.
"This is an enduring commitment. This is an enduring relationship," Walsh said. "So we are posturing ourselves for a long-term support and an enduring commitment."
Walsh said the longstanding U.S.-Japan relationship that underpins the mission runs deeper than many people realize.
"In this case, we live here. We have homes here," the admiral said. "And so we want to be here, side by side or one step behind, wherever they would like us to be as they go through this very cathartic process. It's one we want to be in a position to support."
The U.S. military remains heavily involved in the mission. Since the operation started, U.S. 7th Fleet forces have delivered more than 260 tons of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies to survivors in support of Japan Self-Defense Force efforts.
Yesterday, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and other senior Japanese officials visited the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to thank U.S. service members personally for their support.
"When you consider the burden that all these men have carried for the past three weeks, to give us that amount of time was quite extraordinary," Walsh said. "And I think it's representative of how they feel about the contribution we have made that they wanted to make this kind of personal connection with us."
Walsh emphasized that maintenance and re-provisioning on some of these ships, and in some cases, the reassignment of some of their forces, in no way signals a drawdown of Operation Tomodachi. In fact, he said, "we have more people who have come to Japan than have left Japan in support of this operation."
Any reposturing taking place now, Walsh said, is only to ensure U.S. forces are prepared to sustain operations for the long haul.
"From the fleet perspective, we have every ship we have here under way. ... That has gone on for 30 days," the admiral said. Now, he said, it's time to consider the best way to "present ourselves and posture ourselves so we can sustain this level of support over time -- maybe refocus it, reprioritize it as events and conditions on the ground change."
Walsh praised progress taking place as Japan begins to recover from the disaster.
"There is an extraordinary level of development that has taken place in a very short period of time," the admiral said. He called the reopening of Sendai Airport -- initially considered unsalvageable but quickly turned operational for support of humanitarian flights "one of those seminal sorts of stories that will go down as truly remarkable."
"Because we were able to work with the Japanese government to get the runway up and running, we were able to develop a logistics hub," Walsh continued. "And with a logistics hub now, all kinds of things are possible."
Even as Japan begins rebuilding, he said, it's still dealing with the heartbreaking recovery mission. Japan's Self-Defense Forces are methodically going from location to location and house to house, searching for and recovering victims' remains, Walsh said.
U.S. support is expected to shift more toward helping Japan deal with nuclear consequence management and radiological issues, Walsh said. However, he added, the U.S. military will continue to "be on call when they need us to do more support for logistics or humanitarian assistance or disaster relief up north."
About 400 U.S. service members are currently supporting consequence management missions in Japan, Walsh said, noting that an initial response force recently arrived to provide support. Its members aren't physically going into Japan's nuclear reactors, he noted, but are serving in an advise-and-assist role.
"The ability to pivot from the humanitarian assistance [mission] to the consequence management piece, I think, is an important element of an agile organization," Walsh said. "Being able to adapt to a changing condition on the ground is reflective of our ability to work with Self-Defense Forces and the government of Japan, to listen closely to what their needs are and to do what they want us to do in order to support them."
The complexity of the mission in Japan underscores the level of the U.S. commitment, Walsh said.
"To use the term 'Operation Tomodachi' in an environment where it is radiologically contaminated, that is where you find out who your friends are," he said. "We are here, and we are right in the middle of this thing with Japan when it comes to fighting this problem here with the nuclear power plant. And once again we are in a position to support. We will go where they need us to go and we will support them as they need us to support them."
Walsh said Japan has been extremely forthcoming about radiation levels, posting data collected by 80 sensors arrayed around the country on a public website.
This information sharing helps guide U.S. support missions, he said, so those involved know where it's safe to operate and where it's not and take necessary precautions.
"This is the environment we are in, so we are going to go into it smart and learn how to stay alert to changes in the environment," Walsh said. "And our ability to characterize that environment over time is what helps our men and women."
As the United States works with Japan to abate the crisis, Walsh said it's drawing heavily on the benefits of their long, shared history.
"There is nothing that can replace relationships," he said. "To have those established relationships, whether working with logistics or communications or armed forces working side by side, to have insight into what each other's capabilities are, as well as what each other's needs are, is very, very important."
The complexity of the disaster in Japan -- the earthquake, then tsunami, then radiological crisis -- makes that foundation even more critical, Walsh said.
"One of the lessons important to draw from this is how important it is to be armed with information and knowledge," he said, "and to understand the environment or battle space in which we operate, because if you don't, then it can be very intimidating."
Ultimately, Walsh said, the lessons being learned during Operation Tomodachi will posture the U.S. military for future crises in the earthquake-prone region known as the "Ring of Fire."
"This is the 'Ring of Fire' and it keeps our head on a swivel," he said. "We have to keep working to understand what the environment is telling us and how to be prepared for it. I think it makes us better prepared as operators in the long run."
Navy Adm. Patrick M. Walsh
Special Report: Earthquake in Japan – U.S. Military Responds
U.S. Pacific Fleet