US Marines board aircraft bound for the Philippines to help with disaster relief after Typhoon Haiyan.

US Marines board aircraft bound for the Philippines to help with disaster relief after Typhoon Haiyan.

UPDATE: Aircraft carrier USS George Washington underway to disaster zone.

It is more than a little ghoulish to look at a tragedy that may have killed 10,000 people and see a strategic opportunity. But that’s how strategists have to think. After all, what is war itself but human tragedy exploited for strategic advantage?  And that’s how we need to think about what’s happening in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, where US Marines are already on the ground.

[Updated: The Pentagon announced at 5:40 today that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and its escorts have received orders to “to make best speed” for the Philippines and “should be on station within 48-72 hours.” Marine Corps Forces Pacific said earlier that the US has so far deployed 215 military personnel to Filipino territory.]

The US military is already helping the storm-ravaged Philippines, a long-time ally. The Chinese military not only isn’t responding, it can’t respond — not with anything like the speed or scale that the US can achieve thanks to our global fleet of airborne tankers, cargo planes (like the KC-130Js pictured above), large-capacity naval vessels, friendly seaports such as Singapore, and Pacific land bases. What’s more, the Philippine government probably wouldn’t want help from the Chinese even if they could get there. Those facts represent a major US advantage not only in this one incident in the Philippines but in the long-term struggle for influence across the Western Pacific.

On Saturday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced he had ordered Pacific Command (PACOM) to assist the Filipinos. In fact, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, George Little, had already made clear to the media the US stood ready to help in a statement Saturday, and PACOM was probably planning well before. In fact, the US military has been carrying out disaster response operations around the region for years, with the Boxing Day Tsunami the best and most impressive example.

Marines unload Meals Ready To Eat (MREs) at a Philippine air base.

Marines unload Meals Ready To Eat (MREs) at a Philippine air base.

The Chinese response? I can’t find much. Independent media reports a $100,000 or  $200,000 cash donation, but the official Xinhua news/propaganda agency’s coverage doesn’t mention any Chinese assistance to the Philippines, while today’s lead stories on the Ministry of Defense website focus on joint counter-terrorism training with India (the India-China-US triangle is its own complex strategic mess) and on how the People’s Liberation Army responded to this summer’s earthquake in the Chinese province of Gansu. China has some capacity – and tremendous need – to respond to domestic disasters, but its ability to project power beyond its own borders remains painfully limited.

It’s not that they’re not trying. The Chinese navy has its own hospital ships, it has conducted humanitarian operations around the region, and it has successfully evacuated its citizens from crisis zones as far away as Lebanon. It’s even refurbishing an old Soviet aircraft carrier for long-range operations. But China’s naval power remains dependent on diesel submarines, on sea mines, and on aircraft and anti-ship missiles launched from fighters and the Chinese mainland. That combo is useless for sending humanitarian aid — or invasion forces — to other countries in the region.

The US Navy, however, is all about influencing events on land. It hasn’t fought a major fleet vs. fleet engagement since World War II, but it has tremendous capacity to project force and to send stuff ashore, whether that’s Tomahawk cruise missiles, Marines, relief supplies, or rescue helicopters. Underlying this advantage is the Pentagon’s unparalleled system of global command and logistics networks to coordinate and supply operations around the world. The first wave of response is often airborne, as shown in the pictures above. But for the really heavy hauling, you need the ships, aircraft, and people of what’s called the “Gator Navy” — something no other nation has.

The Gator Navy comprises 30 amphibious warfare ships [update: two of which are headed for the Philippinesdesigned to carry Marine Corps forces: troops, tanks, and supplies; helicopters, V-22 tilt-rotors, and hovercraft to get Marines and their gear ashore in a hurry; and even Marine Corps fighter jets for close air support. The largest of those ships, at 40 to 50,000 tons displacement, are what the US calls its nine “big-deck amphibs.” Any other navy would call them an aircraft carrier, but the US Navy disdains to use that term for anything smaller than its ten 100,000-ton nuclear-powered behemoths. The Navy is now building massive new “Mobile Landing Platform” and “Afloat Forward Staging Base” ships to move even more supplies ashore without needing to use a port. We also have the two famous hospital ships, Comfort and Mercy. This force was primarily bought and built to deploy combat troops to hostile shores, the kind of amphibious warfare that’s been a Marine Corps specialty since before World War II. In fact, the current fleet of 30 amphibs is considered not enough to meet the Marines’ requirements for a major conflict. But it’s plenty to deliver supplies and personnel to a coastal disaster zone.

The US hospital ship Mercy gets resupplied at sea.

The US hospital ship Mercy gets resupplied at sea.

This kind of help is hardly guaranteed to win hearts and minds. The US provided major assistance to Pakistan after the 2010 floods there, and the Pakistani view of America remains, to put it as politely as possible, complex. But disaster relief can reinforce existing alliances, as in the Philippines today and in Japan in 2011, and it can alter relationships with countries that are ambivalent about the US, as in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami.

Meanwhile, China’s main actions in the region the last few years have simply antagonized its Western Pacific neighbors with aggressive naval maneuvers and extravagant territorial claims to disputed islands. The $200,000 in disaster aid China has reportedly offered the Filipinos won’t do much to make up for those provocations. (By comparison, Beijing donated $1 million to the Philippines after a 2011 storm, still a fraction of Western aid, but that was before their relations with Manila got really bad). A Chinese navy hospital ship pulling up to the ravaged coastline would do a lot more for China’s regional reputation. But even if China had the amphibious ships to get its own marines to the disaster zone, the suspicious Filipinos probably wouldn’t let them in.


Updated 5:45 pm with details on ongoing US response.


  • PolicyWonk

    Where I’ve heard of C-130J’s being used to transport aid some aid to the Philippines, these are (compared to a C-5 or C-17) small aircraft. What additional aid (heavy assets) are we sending to the Philippines?
    Are we sending one of our two hospital ships? Are we sending a full ARG (or are other assets being considered)? To do so quickly is what’s known as smart diplomacy…

  • Don Bacon

    So why are so many people concerned with the “pivot” when China’s offensive capabilities are so relatively poor and the US has a decided “strategic edge?”

    So they can scrap that nebulous air-sea battle thing, correct?

  • LookBothPersepectives

    Ahh, just the right article from a neocon propagandist. Even gone all the way to exploit the issue of disaster relief in order to continue his china bashing. How brilliantly shortminded you are.

    • sternhead

      shortminded eh? You don’t need a neocon to tell SE Asians why they hate China.

      • Redblue

        So, can you tell, why SE Asians, except Filipino, hate China? Even the SE Asian traditional China hater, Indonesia, looks up to China these days. Even Vietnam has favorable view towards China these days.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          Dream on, comrade.

          • Redblue

            Filipino, tovarich?

          • BObongloid

            Funny thing is, my Viet friends and co-workers in my past jobs always hated Chinese…on how slow you bring/deliver foods in the restaurant, or how rude they are when customers come through door and not greeted properly, like good morning sir/mam, instead, “two peepol?”.

          • Redblue

            So why do your Viet friends keep coming to the restaurant?

          • CommenterEmeritus

            Why hello there, Comrade Dumpling.

        • JoeBun

          RedBlue = Chinese Troll

          • Redblue

            What’s so mad about?
            Truth hurts, eh?

        • JoeBun

          No SE Asian country likes China. That’s a given. Even Cambodia doesn’t really like China even though it’s a puppet

          • Redblue

            Are you even from SE Asia? Must be from Philippines.

      • LookBothPersepectives

        Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papaua New Guniea, Laos, Mayanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand have nothing wrong with China. So what’s the excuse? Please, don’t even try to justify the usual antagonising of China by the media. Just because the Phillipines, Vietnam and China are rubbing heads over overlapping territorial claims (that have been going on for decades), doesn’t give you the right to propagandize them.

  • squidgod_the_unbannable_2.0

    ” Marine Corps Forces Pacific said earlier that the US has so far deployed 215 military personnel to Filipino territory.”

    Doesn’t the Army already have 400+ there?

    • semper fi

      US Army special forces are deployed in the southern PI to help PH troops fight terrorist. I dont think they have the equipments right now assist visayas area.

      • squidgod_the_unbannable_2.0

        Wasn’t implying that they be used for HADR, but that the sentence made it sound like we didn’t have anyone in the country (but have since deployed 215 Marines). NBD

  • Redblue

    So, with all those magnificent toys from US Navy, why do you still need Chinese Navy?

  • rlhailssrpe

    Kudos to those who go into hell for our sake, both today, and as of yesterday, going back in all of our national sacrifices. But, as noted, strategists need to use their head, as well as their hearts. This mission is clearly nation building, our military might is essentially useless, perhaps counter productive. Hence it is inherently mission creep, on a massive scale, and it comes from the top, our SecDef. Would we be better served if the State Department, or Peace Corps, had these assets and preformed this function? Do we need to recreate the WPA program? It is common to airlift our first responders for forest fires, or earthquakes; each possesses unique skills and equipment, alien to a rifle company.

    What is the purpose of our Marine Corps? Distribute food? If so, are we structured to produce food distributors? Bosses must ponder what they do for a living.

    • Rev Al Sharpton

      Kudos to Obamafrica

    • USNVO

      It would be better if you had all the same capability in the Civilian side but it would also be impractical and prohibitively expensive. A military force can do humanitarian assistance, but it doesn’t work the other way around. And look at who usually airlifts the specialists? That’s right, the military because their planes can land on damaged fields, are designed to work without ground support, are designed to rapidly offload, etc. Military trucks have higher ground clearance and can go places other trucks can’t although they are expensive and can’t carry as much as civilian trucks. Military helicopters are designed to carry cargo, something most civilian Helos can’t. Naval forces (USN/USMC) are even better because they are offshore and support themselves. Finally, in any disaster, there are usually groups that try to take what someone else has not to mention armed groups that may not want the government to succeed. So you often have to have armed forces protect the aid delivery/rescue operations. Military forces can protect themselves.
      Can the Military do it all? Of course not, nor are they expected to. But they have the communications, trained personnel, equipment like RO gear, and transportation assets that no one else has and can contribute to the multi-agency response. And since they have all that stuff anyways or their military mission, why not use it?

      • rlhailssrpe

        Thank you for your response, expertise, and, I suspect, your service. But I am a poor boy, tried to save a dime all my life. So I wonder if we are using a corvette to haul beer. True the US military has awesome ability to project US interests, even in hostile places, but our nation is broke. We are not paying our bills. We dump the consequences of our decisions on our grand kids; we have almost bankrupted our kids.

        Most of our civilian first responders use second hand military equipment. (I understand that in combat, you want the best.) Maybe there is a cheaper way, and a means to employ the thousands of vets our society is not hiring. We need a debate on our ability to nation build, both with the active military, and some “firefighter” organization. What can we do? What can we not do? And pay for?

  • JSain

    Why not ask all the corrupt government officials in the Philippines to cough up some money?

  • david

    Well its because China is a direct threat to democracy thats why, and from my experience the chinese cant be trusted at all only stupid people trust the chinese.

  • mpgunner

    Edge? What edge? China is still playing in the bathtub. They can’t come close to deploying and sustaining remote navel operations compared to the Navy/Marines.

  • JoeBun

    The Philippines-US Alliance has always been one of the strongest. I applaud the US of taking care of it’s friends during times of crisis. It is a sign of a great superpower.

    • Redblue

      Very good. With US to the rescue, why would Philippines need anyone else. Do a good job, thumbs up.
      Now I get it why no ASEAN neighbors rush to the rescue.

  • bridgebuilder78

    What ‘strategic’ edge over China when it’s Chinese MONEY that pays for the U.S. naval budget and whatever aid we will offer?

    Mr. Freedberg, judging by your name and appearance, you ought to know better.

    It’s all about MONEY.

    • GoodLord!

      What a foolish statement. China owns about 8% of total U.S. debt. So to say Chinese money pays for whatever aid we offer is way off the mark.

    • SierraM363

      Dumb statement. Japan holds as much US debt.

  • omegatalon

    This is another perfect example of why America is “exceptional.”

  • Rev Al Sharpon

    Ping dong tong fa lo chee zing shaw Obamafrica

  • SierraM363

    The Chinese are more comfortable with sending ships to harass Japan,Vietnam, and the Philippines.

  • Joseph Cek

    Do you find it odd that exactly one year before Typhoon Haiyan, the 9th National Organic Agriculture Congress proposed to completely ban GMOs on Nov 6-8, 2012? Three months before this storm, a group of 400 farmers in the Philippines stormed a field at a government research facility in Pili, destroying roughly 10 football fields’ worth of the GMO test crop. With regards to the superpowers’ navy and directed-energy weaponry, we find this storm to be triggered exactly one month after China was debating with Philippines in who owns the South China Sea oil reserves. We also take note of intense anti-government clashes between Philippine’s military and other groups in the Philippines (Abu Sayyaf, Communist Party, etc), some of which the U.S. government and its allies are also trying to control. Furthermore, anti-military groups in the Philippines express their statements against the US invasion of Syria and US access of military bases present in the Philippines. All of this was occurring just months before Haiyan hit. All too timely, isn’t it ? Looking at the areas that were affected and damaged by the typhoon, it is interesting to note that most American corporate sites were left untouched. I have shared your video at weatherpeace dot blogspot dot ca