As soon as Navy pilot Matthew Stafford puts his helicopter down in the village of Borongan, he is rushed by dozens of local men who form a line to unload the supplies and water he has flown in from the mothership, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier. Children swarm him as he breaks out a box of sweets.
On the Philippine islands of Leyte and Samar that were shattered by Typhoon Haiyan, there is no doubt about it: the U.S. military has been a life saver. “It is awesome to see this,” says one grateful villager. “They are saving us.”
But while U.S. military support can be critical when disasters like Haiyan strike, staging massive humanitarian relief missions for allies in need isn’t just about being a good neighbor. They can be a strategic and publicity goldmine for U.S. troops whose presence in Asia isn’t always portrayed in such a favorable light — and a powerful warning to countries that aren’t on board.
“These disasters are not unique to the Philippines. It will send a signal to all of Southeast Asia, to Asia, that the U.S. is serious about its presence here,” said Philippine political analyst Ramon Casiple. “It’s easy to translate this capability for disaster handling into handling warfare. This is the new orientation of the task forces.”
From the military perspective, humanitarian missions like the ongoing Operation Damayan in the Philippines offer concrete benefits — the chance to operate in far-flung places, build military-to-military alliances and get realistic training — that they may later apply to their primary mission, which will always be fighting and winning wars.
“Crisis response planning is a skillset for the military, so when you have an opportunity to execute crisis response it’s good for your planning team,” said Rear Adm. Mark C. Montgomery, who commands the George Washington strike group, stationed offshore in the Gulf of Leyte. “So, sure, there is a benefit there. But in reality the reason we do this mission is because in the Navy’s list of missions this is one of the significant efforts we plan for.”
In the week since the disaster, the Philippines has started to receive support from military forces around the region. Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have sent aircraft or personnel and more support is expected soon from other countries.
But none has come close to matching the U.S.