|Tohoku 2011 (Google)|
Japan, of course, is not most nations. Sitting on the 'Ring of Fire’, an arc of unstable seismic activity that encircles the Pacific Basin, Japan's islands are host to regular earthquakes, as well as heavy annual typhoons, that leave them in constant threat from mother nature. The 2011 Tohoku disaster brought home the truly terrifying potential scale of such events. In a single day an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown brought the nation to its knees, with over 15,000 lives lost and total damage estimated at \21 trillion.
The JSDF responded admirably in the crisis, deploying almost half their entire personnel to the disaster zone and toiling for weeks in horrendous conditions. Their efforts helped boost their public profile considerably, with many people seeing this as precisely the type of civic assistance as 'defense force' should excel at. Since then the JSDF have been involved in numerous other relief operations, such as when they provided vital supplies to thousands of people cut off by flooding in Kyushu. In fact, this was only one of some 586 disaster relief operations carried out by the JSDF in 2011 alone. The vast majority of these (444) involving the transport of emergency patients.
|JSDF Disaster Relief (LA Times)|
The 2011 disaster should not, however, be seen as an anomaly. Japan is criss-crossed by hundreds of old-fault lines that could snap at any moment and the chance is far higher in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake. While the scientific ability to predict quakes is highly contested, seismologists who before 2011 had suggested a 0.5% chance of a major quake hitting Tokyo in the coming decades, have revised their estimates up to 35-50%. Studies of the potential effects of such a quake hitting the capital suggest a magnitude-7 quake might inflict 11,000 deaths, render 850,000 buildings useless and cause up to \80 trillion in damages. This is also far from a worst-case scenario, the 1923 Great Tokyo Earthquake was magnitude-8 (32 times stronger than a 7). Numerous other cities have also been assessed as standing at an 80% risk of major quakes over the next 30 years.
Japan is perhaps the most well-prepared nation in the world for such events but this hardly means that more could not be done. Of 57 areas of appraisal covered by the MoD's post-Tohoku 'Lessons Learned' self evaluation, 34 were seen as needing further improvement. No doubt these points will be addressed but to have a real impact will require a serious investment of funds. For example, the pre-instillation of facilities and equipment at evacuation centers, the provision of 4 wheel drive jeeps and trucks to transport medical teams, or the commissioning of hospital ships (preferably with well-decks and ample helicopter support).
None of these seem to be priorities however. In fact, the 2012 MoD budget allocated only \9.7 billion for enhancing disaster preparedness. This might seem like a lot if judged in isolation. Considering though, that the planned acquisition of 42 F-35s might cost \90 billion per year for 20 years, and that another \100+ billion is being allocated annually to missile defense, it raises the question of whether the most likely dangers are being addressed. The threat from North Korea is generally accepted by analysts as being far smaller than commonly portrayed by either the media or politicians. That of China can be offset to some extent by trade, diplomacy or maintaining a limited deterrent. The threat of natural disaster, however, cannot be avoided and yet people seem somehow more blasé about it. Determining whether this is due to the romanticization of military affairs or pessimistic fatalism is not nearly as important as deciding whether it makes common sense in regard the allocation of national security resources.