Japan has taken an increasingly proactive role in defending its territory since the end of the Cold War allowed it to shift its defensive posture to address threats from North Korea and China as public memories of the war begin to fade.
With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushing to revise the pacifist Constitution, Japan’s military presence is likely to grow in the years to come. The government at present interprets the Constitution as banning the nation from engaging in the right of collective self-defense. Abe wants this ban lifted.
The latest sign of the looming military growth was the interim National Defense Program Guidelines released July 26. The document, which outlines defense policies for the next 10 years, said it is crucial for the Self-Defense Forces to develop an amphibious warfare capability so Japan can defend its more than 6,000 islands, including the disputed Senkaku chain claimed by China and Taiwan.
Experts say such a capability would bolster the Japan-U.S. alliance, especially at a time when the United States is realigning its forces in a renewed focus on Asia.
“This is one of the biggest challenges the SDF has faced since it was established,” said retired Vice Adm. Yoji Koda, commander in chief of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Self-Defense Fleet from 2007 to 2008.
“Japan has to reorganize its forces, which were bracing for attack from the north,” Koda said.
But having amphibious capability has historically been perceived as having the ability to deploy an expeditionary invasion force, which contradicts the exclusively defensive capabilities mandated by the postwar Constitution.
The invasion of remote islands was not a scenario Japan envisioned during the Cold War. During that time, 47 percent of the SDF’s total training area was concentrated in Hokkaido to protect sea lanes and prevent attacks from the former Soviet Union.
To counter the recent rise in Chinese naval activity around the Senkaku Islands, the Defense Ministry formed the Western Army Infantry Regiment in 2002 in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, to lead the defense of Japan’s remote islands and serve as a deterrent to aggressors.
The Ground Self-Defense Force unit has about 700 troops and is dedicated to defending Kyushu and Okinawa and to leading multiservice efforts to retake any of the 2,500 remote isles in their proximity, including the Senkakus, should the need arise.
The ministry envisions an amphibious force larger than the regiment in Kyushu, but Koda said Japan needs about 10 units comprising 200 to 300 troops each to ensure it has the flexibility to defend the islands of Miyako, Yonaguni and Ishigaki, as well as the rest of the Okinawa chain.
Each amphibious unit must also be self-sufficient and have the capabilities of the three services combined, because reinforcements cannot be expected once a conflict breaks out, Koda said.
As part of the plan, the SDF has been conducting amphibious training with the U.S. military since 2006 through various campaigns involving GSDF units, including the Western Army Infantry Regiment, and the U.S. Navy and Marines, including the 11th Expeditionary Unit.
In June, 1,000 Japanese service members from all three SDF branches took part in Dawn Blitz, a joint drill that simulated a large amphibious assault on California’s Clemente Island, marking the first time the Air, Ground and Maritime Self-Defense forces participated in a joint drill overseas.
Expectations in Washington are high that Tokyo will increase its military capabilities enough to lessen the tremendous burden of defending Japan and become an effective military ally in Asia sometime in the future.
A Pentagon official who participated in the joint drill said the U.S. would not have expected Japan to take part in an active military operation if a crisis involving Japan occurred three years ago.
“Now the U.S. has to take Japan more seriously for what they can do,” said the official, who declined to be named.
Expectations are growing in Washington that should Japan ease its ban on collective self-defense, it will be able to engage in, for instance, rear-area support for U.S. security operations in the South China Sea.
“But the JSDF still has a long way to go in order to be able to master all the required skills for amphibious operations,” the official said.
In particular, the exercise underscored Japan’s need to overcome a “software problem” before it can achieve full amphibious capability, the official said.
For example, one of the challenges the SDF faces is insufficient coordination. The SDF set up the Joint Staff Office in 2006 to take charge of coordinating operations among the GSDF, MSDF and ASDF, but it’s still coming up short.
Communications systems and language is one area that could use more integration.
The SDF’s three branches use different systems, frequencies and lingo, making it difficult to communicate regularly. The SDF also needs to have a communications system compatible with the U.S. to enhance interoperability.
“An amphibious capability for rapid island defense is inherently joint,” said Justin Goldman, a nonresident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS who is planning to publish a study on Japan’s amphibious capabilities in the Autumn 2013 issue of U.S. Naval War College Review. “The three services within the SDF do not have a long history of training and operating together, a situation that critically needs to be addressed.”
Although experts say Japan has 80 percent of the hardware for amphibious operations, it does not have any amphibious assault vehicles.
Japan has two hybrid landing craft stored in each of its three Osumi-class tank landing ships, but not enough to lead a successful assault in an emergency. The government has earmarked funds to purchase four amphibious assault vehicles for research purposes, but critics say it will probably need around 40.
The amphibious buildup has been criticized by China, whose state-owned China News Service has warned will trigger a strong backlash and speed up a regional arms race.
The Hangqiu, a tabloid version of China’s People’s Daily, an organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, has warned that Japan might launch an amphibious operation to “retake” the Diaoyu, China’s name for the uninhabited Senkakus, which Japan took control of in 1895 and China has only starting claiming in the 1970s.
But the People’s Liberation Army formed a marine unit in 1980 and has been participating in joint exercises with the Royal Thai Navy since 2010.
U.S. Gen. James Conway, commandant of the U.S. Marines Corps from 2006 to 2008, said during a visit to a PLA marine base in 2008 that “Chinese marines live up to their reputation,” according to a report from The China Daily.
Some Japanese critics say the idea of forming a marine unit should be rejected because it will send the dangerous message that Japan is remilitarizing.
“One of the marines’ tasks is to go to the front line first to launch an attack. It may send a signal that Japan is expediting its preparation for a (combat) contingency,” said Hiromori Maedomari, a professor at Okinawa International University and former reporter for Okinawa-based Ryukyu Shimpo.
“This will trigger a further military buildup because China and other nations will respond to such a move.”
Yet advocates argue that amphibious capability is indispensable for providing the type of humanitarian assistance and disaster response Japan has received after earthquakes and tsunami. It is also useful in contributing to HADR operations in other countries affected by natural disasters.
“Japan could have saved several thousands more lives if it had amphibious capability using AAVs (assault amphibious vehicles) or had better transportation capability,” the U.S. official said.
“Using amphibious capability for HADR elsewhere in Asia is an attractive opportunity for Japan’s substantial contribution in the region, and enhances Japan’s confidence of what they can do.”