P-3Cs sent to join hunt for pirates

MSDF aircraft to augment destroyer flotilla

by Jun Hongo

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada issued the order Friday to send two P-3C patrol airplanes to the Gulf of Aden, expanding the ongoing antipiracy mission of two Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers off Somalia.

The MSDF antisubmarine aircraft are scheduled to depart May 28 and join the 4,650-ton Sazanami and 4,550-ton Samidare, which were dispatched in March. The P-3Cs, on their first mission overseas, will use radar and infrared from the air to spot possible pirates.

“Protection of Japanese lives and assets will be carried out more efficiently” with the airplanes, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters, adding the P-3Cs will monitor seaways and gather information for better protection.

A Defense Ministry official said the expanded mission will result in approximately 150 more service members being sent to the area, with Ground Self-Defense Force personnel guarding an airport in Djibouti where the P-3Cs will base. The Air Self-Defense Force will take part in transporting the personnel and supplies to the airport.

Asked if deploying armed GSDF troops under the maritime police-action provision was prudent, Hamada said it is vital for the Self-Defense Forces to “work as one.”

“We need to set up a base, and the GSDF has the expertise. (The dispatch) is consistent,” he said.

The ministry official said the United States and Germany have also deployed P-3Cs to search for pirates off Somalia, and there were high expectations that Tokyo would also join the patrols. The planes are capable of nighttime watch and will become “the eyes and ears” of the MSDF, the official said.

According to the Defense Ministry, an advance team will head to Djibouti on Monday followed by the main unit on May 28. The P-3C patrols will begin in early June.

“This is a vast area, where some 2,000 Japan-related vessels travel,” Hamada said, stressing the significance of adding airborne patrols.

As the first mission to be held overseas under the maritime police-action provision of the Self-Defense Forces Law, the MSDF sent the two destroyers, each with a crew of 200, two helicopters and small high-speed boats. Four Japan Coast Guard officers with the authority to make arrests are also aboard each ship.

The flotilla has so far escorted 55 ships on 17 occasions through the Gulf of Aden. It scared off apparent pirate vessels on four of the missions with searchlights and bullhorns after receiving signals from foreign ships, the ministry official said.

While the MSDF is not eligible to provide protection to non-Japan-related vessels and is allowed use of weapons only for self-defense and emergency evacuations, the Defense Ministry said the incidents were “within the limits of what was allowed” for humanitarian rescue missions.

The current maritime police-action provision is to be replaced by a new antipiracy bill being deliberated in the Diet, which will enhance the rules of engagement and allow the MSDF to protect ships from various nations.