Scandal-plagued SDF faces tests in new year

Troops may be called on to aid fight against terrorism and piracy

by Daisuke Yamamoto

Kyodo News

The close of 2008 finds the Defense Ministry and Self-Defense Forces bogged down with scandals and misdeeds involving personnel.

But as they enter 2009 — and the new U.S. administration led by Barack Obama enters the scene — they face uncertainties over how the new president will approach bilateral security relations.

One challenge Japan could face is a call to send troops to Afghanistan.

Obama has vowed to focus on the “war on terror.”

Maritime Self-Defense Force warships are engaged in a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean as part of the antiterrorism campaign, but the Ground and Air Self-Defense Force missions in Iraq are over.

An Afghan deployment would put the government in a dilemma. It would need to ensure the safety of SDF personnel and resolve the question over the legality of SDF involvement in the antiterrorism campaign under the Constitution, especially if the forces could become involved in combat.

“I can’t deny the possibility of (the SDF) getting involved in combat activities (in Afghanistan). That is problematic under the Constitution,” Prime Minister Taro Aso said in a Diet session in October.

The Constitution places other legal restrictions on SDF activities, particularly limiting the use of weapons overseas.

Defense officials say Afghanistan is far more dangerous than Iraq, where GSDF troops and ASDF planes were deployed without a single loss of life. They fear casualties in Afghanistan would shake both SDF personnel and the Japanese people.

Still, “we cannot remain idle for long without playing any new role,” while Washington keeps the pressure on Tokyo to do more, a senior defense official said on condition of anonymity.

As piracy intensifies off Somalia, concerns are mounting over the safe passage of commercial ships in the region. Several vessels linked to Japan fell victim to pirates in 2008.

Japan is considering dispatching MSDF ships and patrol aircraft to join forces with other countries, including the United States and the European Union, to protect ships from pirate attacks.

There has been a temporary lull in the debate, however, after government officials and lawmakers began favoring passage of a general law to enable such a dispatch.

The enactment of the law remains uncertain, given the logjam in the opposition-controlled House of Councilors, whereas a special law that would limit the area of operations might be enacted more easily.

China’s recent dispatch of warships to the region to combat pirates in concert with other countries added to concerns among defense officials and politicians that Japan may be left outside the circle.

“Now is the time to send the SDF. If we fail to do so by the end of January, the momentum will be lost,” the senior official said. He favors a special law for the mission.

In the past week or so, government officials and lawmakers have been warming to the idea of applying existing maritime policing rules under the SDF law to the mission, if only on grounds that it would be quicker to dispatch forces.

A top defense official noted, however, that problems abound with such action.

“All the SDF can do (under the rules) is to protect Japanese ships. There are also limits on the use of weapons. Will that be all right? We have no choice but to be negative” about a dispatch under the rules, he said on condition of anonymity.

Maritime police actions, first engaged in nine years ago against North Korean spy ships in Japanese waters in the Sea of Japan, are premised on the notion that such operations take place around Japan, not thousands of kilometers away.

A relative lack of interest in the piracy issue among the public does not appear to have helped the momentum while economic issues remain the topic of the day.

Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry and the SDF were put on the defensive over the question of civilian control after Air Self-Defense Force Chief of Staff Gen. Toshio Tamogami’s contentious essay justifying Japan’s wartime role.

In the essay, the outspoken Tamogami argued that Japan was a benevolent colonial ruler and not an aggressor in Asia, sparking an instant uproar that cost him his post and career.

As head of an academy for ranking officers, Tamogami also started a course on “views on history and the nation” in 2003 and invited lecturers who serve as executives of a group that edited a history textbook whitewashing Japan’s militaristic past.

The scandal came at a sensitive moment for the ministry as it eyes strengthening the authority of ranking officers over SDF operations and weakening that of civilian bureaucrats in ministry reforms.