Pacific Fleet Commander Reflects on Operation Tomodachi

WASHINGTON — As he pre­pares to turn over the reins of U.S. Pacif­ic Fleet, Navy Adm. Patrick M. Walsh looks back with pride in his command’s adapt­abil­i­ty in respond­ing to last year’s earth­quake and tsuna­mi dis­as­ter in Japan.

Japan­ese Defense Min­is­ter Toshi­mi Kitaza­wa, right, and Navy Adm. Patrick M. Walsh meet aboard the air­craft car­ri­er USS Ronald Rea­gan, April 4, 2011. Dur­ing the vis­it, Japan­ese and U.S. offi­cials thanked Ronald Rea­gan sailors for relief efforts dur­ing Oper­a­tion Tomodachi. U.S. Navy pho­to by Pet­ty Offi­cer 3rd Class Shawn J. Stew­art
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Navy Adm. Cecil D. Haney, for­mer deputy com­man­der of U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand, will take over as leader of the world’s largest fleet tomor­row. Walsh spoke about the chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties fac­ing Amer­i­ca in the region dur­ing an inter­view ear­li­er this week. Speak­ing from his head­quar­ters at Pearl Har­bor, Hawaii, the admi­ral talked about the U.S. mil­i­tary assis­tance effort, dubbed Oper­a­tion Tomodachi, in response to the March dis­as­ter.

More than 15,400 peo­ple died in the tragedy. Coastal vil­lages, towns and cities were almost oblit­er­at­ed by the earth­quake and tsuna­mi. Amer­i­can aid to the Japan­ese ulti­mate­ly includ­ed 20 ships, includ­ing the air­craft car­ri­er USS Ronald Rea­gan, almost 20,000 per­son­nel, and huge amounts of sup­plies and heavy equip­ment.

Walsh was in Hawaii when the earth­quake struck. He soon real­ized it was a cat­a­stroph­ic event for the Japan­ese, he said, and dam­age to the nuclear pow­er plant at Fukushi­ma made pro­vid­ing assis­tance that much tougher.

The U.S. mil­i­tary worked in sup­port of the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment. The expe­ri­ence, skills, edu­ca­tion and train­ing that mil­i­tary peo­ple pos­sess was quite adapt­able to the sit­u­a­tion, he said.

“It was impor­tant that we had a force that was for­ward, that was ready, that was cred­i­ble, and that has rela­tion­ships that extend well beyond sim­ple mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary ties,” Walsh said.

Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers had a long his­to­ry of work­ing with Japan­ese coun­ter­parts and under­stood the cul­ture and sen­si­tiv­i­ties, the admi­ral not­ed. The “can-do” atti­tude of Amer­i­can com­man­ders in the region helped tremen­dous­ly, he added.

“You have the for­ward-deployed naval offi­cers who aren’t wait­ing for orders to move ships, but are react­ing and respond­ing quick­ly,” the admi­ral said.

Walsh stressed the impor­tance of build­ing rela­tion­ships with region­al part­ners, and the long­stand­ing rela­tion­ship with the Japan­ese was cru­cial to this effort. “It’s impor­tant to say this was not a cold start for us,” he said. “We had per­son­al con­tacts with our coun­ter­parts in the region long before the earth­quake and tsuna­mi.”

Amer­i­can offi­cials knew who to call and what to say to their Japan­ese coun­ter­parts as soon as the extent of the dis­as­ter became known, Walsh said, and Pacif­ic Fleet has the expe­ri­ence and con­tacts to do this in oth­er parts of the region.

“The flex­i­ble and adap­tive capa­bil­i­ties of the force and the expe­ri­ence base of the force would work in oth­er sit­u­a­tions,” Walsh said. “We would, of course, have to tai­lor our approach to the needs of oth­er coun­tries.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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