The Ground Self-Defense Force has been studying the idea of jointly operating its secret intelligence unit and special units to engage in overseas hostage rescues, infiltrations, target surveillance and base attacks since around 2008, former senior defense officials said Monday.
The existence of the intelligence unit was reported in November. It has been secretly gathering intelligence abroad since the Cold War without informing the prime minister, who is the commander-in-chief of the Self-Defense Forces, or the defense minister — a practice viewed as undermining civilian control.
While the government denies its existence, a former senior official of the special GSDF unit, established in 2004 to counter terrorist and guerrilla attacks, said it was needed to attack enemy bases.
“We need a powerful intelligence unit to enable the special unit to sneak into enemy bases to attack them,” the former official said.
According to the former officials and other sources, the idea was to have the intelligence unit introduced to special operations with an eye to deploying the SDF abroad, just like the U.S. Navy SEALs, which stormed the Pakistan compound of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and killed him in 2011.
Such a scheme, however, may contravene the current interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution, which prohibits the use of force to settle international conflicts.
While the special unit was formed to deal with attacks that exceed the capabilities of the police, its overseas duties, including reconstruction support for war-ravaged Iraq, have expanded since then.
On the other hand, the special unit has been secretly engaging in infiltration and hostage-rescue drills, as well as conducting reconnaissance on aerial bombardment targets, the sources said. In the process, the special unit discovered that it lacks sufficient capability to gather information from local informants.
The GSDF has already started reshuffling senior officials in the special unit in line with personnel changes in the intelligence unit.
The intelligence unit has set up bases in such countries as Russia, China, South Korea and Poland, and several dozen GSDF members have engaged in overseas intelligence activities lacking a legal basis by taking false identities. This included pretending to be officials of Japanese government bodies other than the Defense Ministry and employees of trading companies, according to former officials.