Tank forces face ax

The number of Ground Self-Defense Force tanks is expected to be slashed from 1,020 to fewer than 600 in the near future, with ballistic missiles and terrorism now perceived as the main threats to Japan’s security.

GSDF tank forces were beefed up — chiefly in northern Hokkaido — during the Cold War as a deterrent against the Far East forces of the former Soviet Union.

The Seventh Division, based in Chitose, Hokkaido, is the GSDF’s sole armored division. It served as a symbol of deterrence against a possible Soviet invasion.

In addition to about 180 tanks in three regiments, the division has some 600 other tracked vehicles.

The main force consists of 50-ton, Japanese-made Type 90 tanks introduced in 1990. Each has a three-member crew and a cannon that can be loaded automatically.

GSDF members still have to lay iron plates on bridges along route C, a municipal road linking the GSDF’s Higashi-Chitose and Kita-Chitose camps, before tanks can move over them. Work aimed at expanding and strengthening route C began in the mid-1990s, with more than 2.4 billion yen having already been spent on the project.

Yet the GSDF’s capability and equipment are under review — a scenario that could have a major impact on the tank forces and the role they currently fulfill.

At the Finance Ministry on May 25, military critic Kensuke Ebata delivered a presentation to ministry officials focusing on missile defense and the defense industry.

“I had thought it was a private meeting involving a small number of people, but it was not. (The participants) were quite enthusiastic,” Ebata said.

Five such meetings were held through the end of June, with speakers including former Deputy Prime Minister Masaharu Gotoda and an executive of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.’s aerospace division.

About 4.9 trillion yen was earmarked for defense-related expenses in fiscal 2003.

Finance Ministry debate used to center on whether Defense Agency requests fell within the budget or the procurement timetable.

There was virtually no discussion by ministry officials on why certain equipment was actually necessary, an agency official said, adding, “We are seriously concerned about the ministry’s change of mind.”

In the May 25 meeting, Ebata said tanks topped the list of equipment rapidly heading toward obsolescence.

Route C, for example, is the only road reinforced for tanks. Most others would have problems facilitating the rapid deployment of armored vehicles.

The Defense Agency’s annual white paper last year stated that a large-scale invasion of Japan in the near future was unlikely, sparking calls for fewer tanks.

But Yutaka Shoda, commander of the Seventh Division, said: “About 20 years are required to foster commanding officers for tank forces. The same for manufacturing technologies. I do not want to see the white paper contain discussions about future security due to current threats (such as ballistic missiles or terrorism).”