Experts doubt MSDF’s antipiracy mettle

by Jun Hongo

The Maritime Self-Defense Force got the word Friday to send two destroyers to combat pirates in the Gulf of Aden, but experts quickly questioned whether the flotilla would be able to protect Japanese vessels — let alone themselves.

“Some of the attackers will be fishermen-turned-pirates, but others will be professionals trained by terrorist organizations. It’s questionable how effective the MSDF will be against the latter,” military journalist Tetsuo Maeda said.

Somali pirates carry automatic rifles and rocket launchers. They are also known to use radios and GPS devices to monitor communications and trace their prey, making rounds in coordinated teams and employing high-speed boats to approach their targets.

Maeda, an expert on the Self-Defense Forces, said the task force will face extreme difficulties from the legal constraints imposed by the war-renouncing Constitution. There is only a thin line between going overboard and getting the job done, he said, expressing concern about how the dispatch is managed.

The decision to send the MSDF was rammed through the Diet after China in January sent two of its own destroyers to patrol the Gulf of Aden. But aside from the legal restrictions, the mission is virtually a maiden voyage for Japan, which has never been involved in a police action overseas.

The occasion will also mark the first time the MSDF has collaborated with the Japan Coast Guard in a danger zone outside Japan.

While showing some concern, Superintendent Third Grade Yukihiro Takeuchi, who will lead the JCG squad aboard the MSDF destroyers, said Monday he is ready for action.

“We will display our investigative abilities and show what we have achieved through our training with the MSDF,” Takeuchi told reporters, referring to their February drills.

The drill last month off Hiroshima was an exhibition at best. MSDF ships were seen fending off mock pirate ships with huge pirate flags emblazoned on their sides, although it is highly unlikely pirates will identify themselves so readily while stalking their prey.

Differentiating Japanese vessels from the other 20,000 ships that ply the gulf each year will also be tricky.

Multinational ships are also expected to travel along with the Japanese herd, but since the police-action provision stipulates the MSDF can only protect Japan-related ships, it remains unclear what the task force will do if a foreign ship comes under attack.

Coast guard Commandant Teiji Iwasaki warned the officers that difficult decisions would have to be made when arresting pirates. His advice? Don’t hesitate to call home for advice on any developments during the mission.

“Obviously, those operating off Somalia won’t have the luxury of making a phone call when a pirate is approaching the ship,” Maeda said. “In the end, it will be up to those on location to make the judgment.”

Yoshinori Ikezumi, a peace activist who sued the government over the 2004 deployment of Air Self-Defense Force elements to Kuwait to engage in Iraq airlifts, hinted he may try a similar tack over the mission off Somalia.

The Nagoya High Court in turned down Ikezumi’s demands for compensation in July 2007 but said in its ruling that transporting materials and personnel in Iraq could be construed as unconstitutional use of force.

Ikezumi sees the dispatch to Somalia as a more obvious misdeed, since weapons use is in the cards.

“If by any chance the MSDF uses force against a group of Somalis who turn out not to be pirates — that would be an instant violation of the Constitution,” he said. “Sending the SDF to a treacherous area and justifying the use of weapons as self-defense is just not logical.”