[The following guest post is courtesy of Peter J. Brown.]

U.S. Air Force MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft, Yamagata Airport Forward Area Refueling Point, Operation Tomodachi.

When Japan’s earthquake struck, Japan’s wired and wireless communications were quickly knocked out as the telecommunications infrastructure in the impacted zone collapsed. While much has been said about the importance of wireless social networking in such dire circumstances, the reality is that Japan’s emergency communications grid soon proved to be inadequate.

Elements of the U.S. military also found themselves cut off and scrambling to restore their communications links – doing so at a time when the U.S. Department of Defense is spending billions of dollars on new, high-bandwidth satellite links in the Asia – Pacific region and elsewhere.

In late March, for example, AFCEA’s Signal magazine reported that USMC units in Japan had to rely upon conventional telephones in order to sustain communications between USMC units in Japan and to maintain contact with units in South Korea.

This was not just a 24 – hour outage, but an extremely adverse situation lasting 72 hours.

USMC CIO, Brigadier General Kevin Nally, went on to openly declare that the entire USMC shift to IP – based communications is now subject to review as a result.

When a USMC Forward Area Refueling Point (FARP) was established in support of round – the – clock U.S. and Japanese rescue and recovery operations at Yamagata Airport, the U.S. Air Force dispatched one of its own tactical communications specialists to support this operation. A Special Operations Forces High-speed Agile Reachback Kit (SHARK) provided not just the most reliable communications link for U.S. military personnel at Yamagata, it provided the ONLY link. And it was entirely IP-based, too.

In other words, absent SHARK, it was time to sit back and enjoy the silence. However, whether it interfaced with a military satcom network or any satcom link whatsoever for that matter in this instance is unclear.

Besides the new U.S. Wideband Global Satcom network, other new USAF AEHF satellites are becoming operational. In the process, the bandwidth benefits enjoyed by U.S. military forces in Asia are supposed to be enormous.

The U.S. military’s new China-centric AirSea Battle (ASB) concept elevates the importance of satcom on account of ASB’s considerable emphasis on tightly coordinated U.S. Navy – USMC – USAF operations. Thus, while what unfolded at Yamagata represented an important chapter in Operation Tomodachi, because there was a sustained satcom reachback along with a forward operational dimension involving a non-military site in Japan, the shadow of the emerging ASB game plan cannot be casually overlooked here.

The Japanese government as well as the space – friendly DPJ in particular, on the other hand, must constantly seek to improve Japan’s overall approach to disaster response and recovery.

Of course, readers must not misunderstand what is being said here. Japan has always planned and drilled extensively for just this type of earthquake. And Japan gets very high marks as a result.

Japan clearly recognizes the importance of satellite imagery in post – disaster recovery operations, for example. Japan Security Watch has discussed the role of satellite imagery earlier.

Japan also uses satellites to broadcast alerts and warnings instantly via the “J-Alert” project which was launched in 2007 with mixed results.

However, how and when Japan used satellites communications to provide redundancy and rapidly improve the flow of information in and out of remote communities and shelters after this disaster struck is open to question.

For one thing, there has been very little said in the Japanese media about the importance of satellite communications over the past month. Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the Okazaki Institute in Tokyo replied that, “there is no discussion on satellite-based communication for disaster relief, only satellite imagery. In terms of emergency communications, the Japanese media only discusses the need to enhance cell phone networks which did not work this time.”

Coincidentally, the “Report on the 2010 Chilean Earthquake and Tsunami Response” was just released by the American Red Cross Multidisciplinary Team, and it states that, among other things,

“Communication system failures limited the ability of a central government to assist impacted communities, or to issue tsunami warnings. It also delayed the response since the government did not know (in some case for several days) the impact and needs of local governments. (Source)

When asked about the role of satellite communications in Chile, Dr. Lucile Jones, Chief Scientist of the U. S. Geological Survey’s Multi Hazards Project told us that the American Red Cross team detected very little use of satellite communications in Chile.

In contrast, the state of California which occupies another significant earthquake zone embraced satellite communications years ago. There, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services can instantly activate its own satellite-enabled network which reaches multiple sites statewide.

California has also hosted elaborate “Strong Angel” exercises which routinely incorporate mobile satellite communications in large-scale disaster simulations. Finally, many California agencies – state, county and local – operate satellite-equipped mobile command posts, both in urban and rural areas.

Yes, satellite communications in Japan and elsewhere will be improved as a result of this earthquake. That’s the good news. Both the U.S. military and the Japanese government can address their respective gaps quickly and easily.

For the Japanese government, the objective is to do what is necessary to maintain uninterrupted close contact with the people most affected by a disaster. A greater emphasis upon satellite communications including ongoing training and prepositioned equipment will help Japan enormously in the future.

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Peter J. Brown is a Maine-based freelance writer who specializes in satellite technology. He wrote extensively about the role of satellites in major disasters as a former senior multimedia and homeland security editor at “Via Satellite” magazine. His work on this topic has appeared in “Asia Times Online” as well as “Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness”, a journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications. He has worked on a variety of projects where improvements in emergency communications have been an important goal including the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) which has been widely implemented throughout the U.S.
Peter J Brown has 6 post(s) on Japan Security Watch