Lessons Learned vs Lessons Applied A Comparison of Operation Tomodachi and Operation Damayan

Fukashima v Haiyanby Amy Gorman and Jonathan Fredrickson

As natural disasters continue to grow in both severity and number, the capability of the Department of Defense (DoD) to assist in Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) efficiently and rapidly is an utmost concern. In preparation for a case study on the Command and Control (C2) strengths and weaknesses during Operation Tomodachi, 11 Mar-8 Apr 2011, interviews were held with several senior command officers involved in the cleanup and humanitarian assistance period within Japan. During an interview with Pacific Command Commander ADM Locklear, he encouraged us to look at the Typhoon Haiyan Response as a better representation of DoD efforts than Operation Tomodachi in Japan. This article seeks to expand on the central question of the case study, “what lessons were learned in the aftermath of Tomodachi?,” and “further how well were these lessons applied in the Philippines during Operation Damayan?”

            Operation Tomodachi, Japanese for “Friend,” began in earnest after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the Eastern Coast of Japan on March 11th 2011. On that same day, the Government of Japan (GoJ) declared a state of emergency and called for aid. This earthquake, and the subsequent tsunami, killed over 15,000 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. In addition to the initial destruction, floodwaters short-circuited the Fukushima Daiicchi plant generators and nearly caused a full-scale nuclear meltdown. Fortunately, due to the rapid response of the United States Government (USG) and the DoD, HA/DR teams were dispatched within hours of the crisis, assisting the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) to mitigate catastrophe from a nuclear meltdown.

Two years later, Super Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Typhoon Yolanda, hit the Philippines on November 7th, 2013. With wind speeds up to 200 mph and rainfall up to 30mm per hour, this storm was unprecedented. During its two-day passage over the Western, Central and Eastern Visayas, it laid waste to nearly every town in its path. In the aftermath of the storm, over 6,000 people were killed and over 1.1 million homes were damaged or destroyed. As was the case with Tomodachi, Operation Damayan began after the Philippines Government called for aid, this time on November 11th, 2013.

Communication Between US Forces

One of the earliest issues during the commencement of Operation Tomodachi was intra-military communication. Due to the complexity of the disaster relief operations, the earliest planning saw fatal flaws in its implementation. On March 11, 2011, USPACOM designated the Commander of the United States Forces in Japan (USFJ) as the supported operational commander. However, this order was rescinded a few days later as it became clear that USFJ did not have the capabilities to efficiently run the HA/DR operations, and a Joint Support Force (JSF) was implemented. Though such changes are understandable in a continually shifting environment, further troubles arose as the USFJ’s role was no longer clear. It continued to serve its social-political role, but its staff reported to the JSF, leading to miscommunication.

As the operation developed, communication did not seem to improve as is evident from the conflicts over chain of command at Yokota Air Base. According to an unnamed official, every USG entity based on the air base believed they had control over the 374th Airlift Wing. The chain of command (CoC) was not spelled out clearly to all adjacent USG agencies, so all groups requested airlift missions independently. Therefore, the 374th Airlift wing was put in the position to triage missions instead of being tasked by a headquarters with a more developed situational awareness. Each group has their own priorities, and it is difficult to ask one group to sacrifice its own goals for another one. Due to these competing priorities and mission perception, efficiency fell. In the end, issues such as these can be traced back to the mishandled reorganization of command on the ground. At the same time, it is important to note that the rise of the nuclear disaster scenario at Fukushima and the subsequent evacuation of USG assets complicated airlift efforts to focus strictly on Japan, complicating mission prioritization even more.

In contrast to Operation Tomodachi, Operation Damayan has been considered a success in terms of operational efficiency and intra-military communication. According to an overview of the disaster relief operations by the Center for Excellence, “this (operation) was one of the better integrated responses by The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance’s (OFDA) Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DARTs) with US military forces.”[1] Going further, the report claimed that the USG facilitated “effective command and control”[2] because of the history of joint exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This is due to a clear understanding of mission tasking channels by all involved. The primary weakness identified, after the fact, was the lack of knowledge of standard operating procedures in multinational relief efforts on the ground.[3] Though this likely did inhibit efficiency in operations, it was a hurdle that was overcome.

A simple comparison of the remarks from each operation shows that communication and clarity were far more emphasized during Operation Damayan. While there were many factors out of the control of USG that complicated the mission in Japan, the mission in the Philippines succeeded because there was a greater share of effort placed on interagency cooperation and local community involvement. The result of a clear understanding of tasking authority and CoC throughout the USG effort was a success that will serve as a central example for future disaster relief operations.

Communication Between US and Host Nation

The other source of difficulties that hindered USG relief operations during Operation Tomodachi was the unstable line of communication between the Government of Japan and the USG. Traditionally, in the event of a catastrophe like this, coordinated relief operations would originate from the joint efforts of the host nation’s Ministry of Defense and the DoD. However, it was quickly discovered that the heavily decentralized nature of the GoJ made such coordination difficult. Rather than getting requests through official government channels, a majority of appeals for aid came through mid-level and unofficial contacts. These requests were often vague and lacked basic information such as quantity, purpose, or location. Given that these appeals for aid were coming in through unofficial channels, determining priority and assigning tasks became muddled. After some time had passed, the Prime Minister of the GoJ decided to establish a cabinet level position to handle tasking issues and aid requests, but this did not stop the unofficial communication channels.

Comparatively, the difficulties encountered by US forces in communicating with the GoJ were inversely present during Operation Damayan in the Philippines, but these obstacles were more subtle. Like the GoJ, the Filipino Government is decentralized, with substantial power allocated to the barangays, the Philippine’s lowest level political organization. However, unlike the GoJ, the baranagays officially served as an effective crisis management center as well as a home base for local operations. The autonomy of the barangays put Manila in a supervisory role rather than as a direct leader. This aversion to centralized governments likely developed due to its history with heavily centralized and very corrupt governments beginning in the 1960s through the 1980s.[4] This dispersed, but official, authority allowed for seamless cooperation with the OFDA DARTs and other DoD disaster teams as approval for operations did not need come from the Philippines’ central government.

The issues that did arise in the Philippines developed out of this same lack of coordination with the central government. As the Center for Excellence concluded, “familiar themes from past relief efforts reemerged; the relatively lackluster effort to integrate national civilian and military governmental agencies into the planning and decision-making of international relief coordinating bodies.”[5] In short, the support forces were running their own operations with the help of the barangays. Manila was not kept abreast of who was doing what in the Philippines largely. Though this did create frustrations, which should be analyzed for better approaches in future operations, the work was completed.

The lessons learned in Japan were not necessarily the direct cause of the various successes in the Philippines as each had different circumstances from one to another. The crux of the issues, as illustrated in this section, was derived from the host nation’s governmental organization as well as the crisis management experience of those on the ground. The USG already understood how to work with the Philippine government in disaster relief operations due to years of cooperation and training. This likely aided the lack of communication with the central government in Manila, while still completing missions. In contrast, though there has been a long partnership between the U.S. and Japan, Japan has never needed such levels of help in the past and the USG had not worked out how to help such a strong and capable ally in a major disaster. Also, it must be noted that Typhoon Haiyan was a more typical disaster response effort; one where all parties understood the risks, impacts, and plan to respond.  Japan confronted a far more complex and potentially devastating disaster that was not prepared for when they faced a potential nuclear meltdown.  The challenges Japan faced was not a matter of the forces available to help, but a lack of clear communication channels. Thus, it pushed the U.S. to liaison only with the central government instead of the provinces to avoid overstepping its bounds and embarrassing the GoJ. This lack of clarity delayed effective management of assets along a set of centralized priorities and communication lines.


            It is clear now why ADM Locklear advised us to use the Typhoon Haiyan response as the textbook description of HA/DR in action. Compared to the disorganization and disruption in the opening week of U.S. participation in Operation Tomodachi, the DoD entered the Philippines far more prepared and with more experience. Operation Damayan was a success according to interagency groups on the ground as well as the local communities.[6] It is a sad truth that lessons are often learned, but never applied. Fortunately, for the sake of the Filipino people, this is an event where both happened in tandem.

[1] Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, “Lessons from Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), Jan 2014, 37.

[2] Ibid, 37

[3] Ibid.

[4] BBC. “What Happened to the Marcos Fortune?” BBC News. N.p., 24 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.

[5] Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, “Lessons from Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), Jan 2014, 47.

[6] Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, “Lessons from Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), Jan 2014

Amy Gorman is a Research Analyst Contractor working on the TIDES project at the Center for Technology & National Security Policy at National Defense University (amy.gorman.ctr@ndu.edu)

Jonathan Fredrickson is a TIDES intern at the Center for Technology & National Security Policy at National Defense University


About startides

TIDES Research Assistant Intern
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