The Cold War ended about 20 years ago and Japan is finally trying to execute a drastic transformation of the Ground Self-Defense Force by shifting its focus from the north to the southwest — effectively relaxing its guard against Russia and bolstering it against China.
Facing China’s growing military power, the new 10-year national defense guidelines the Cabinet endorsed in December spell out plans to bolster the defense of islands to the southwest, most notably Okinawa and the disputed Senkaku chain in the East China Sea.
The GSDF will procure 17 MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and 52 amphibious vehicles and create new units dedicated to defending “remote islands” like the Senkakus, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.
The GSDF plans to remove all of its tanks from Honshu and leave only about 300 on Hokkaido and Kyushu.
The Defense Ministry will meanwhile procure 99 faster, more maneuverable combat vehicles that will be capable of reaching speeds of 100 kph and can be airlifted to remote islands.
Experts are skeptical about the need for amphibious units to defend the Senkakus, arguing the GSDF might be just trying to secure budget allocations at a time when the debt-ridden government has little room to increase the defense budget further.
Without air and maritime superiority, an amphibious unit would have little chance of prevailing in a battle over a remote island.
Thus the Maritime Self-Defense Force and Air Self-Defense Force need to be reinforced before amphibious units are introduced, said Shunji Taoka, a noted military journalist and former senior writer for the major daily Asahi Shimbun.
“If you maintain air and maritime superiority, no (enemy) force could approach (a remote island). If you lose it, you cannot send an amphibious unit there.
“So it is air and maritime superiority that matters. You don’t need a landing force” to defend the Senkakus, Taoka maintained.
Toshiyuki Shikata, a professor of Teikyo University and former commanding general of the GSDF’s Northern Area Army, agreed that the most important element in defending an island is air superiority, and then to win control of the seas.
“Given that (improving) the MSDF and ASDF is the priority now, the GSDF is in a difficult situation” when it comes to budget allocations, Shikata said.
But he stressed that the creation of an amphibious unit that includes Ospreys will greatly enhance the GSDF’s capabilities and be useful if a remote Japanese island needs to be recaptured, like one of the Senkakus.
The Osprey flies twice as fast as the aging CH-47 helicopters long used to transport GSDF troops. Shikata estimates that an Osprey could carry SDF troops from a camp on Okinawa Island to the Senkakus in an hour, whereas it would take some 10 hours if they went by ship.
“The great thing about (Osprey) is its speed,” said Noboru Yamaguchi, a former lieutenant general of the GSDF who is now a professor at the National Defense Academy of Japan.
Ospreys have a range of around 600 km and can be refueled in flight. The islands of Okinawa could even be defended by MV-22s based in Honshu, Yamaguchi said.
He emphasized it is urgent for the operations of the ASDF, MSDF and GSDF to be integrated in order to defend remote islands.
As it is, joint operations for the three branches are key elements of the new national defense guidelines, which call for bolstering the network data linkage among the ASDF, MSDF and GSDF.
The Defense Ministry plans to purchase six U.S.-made AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles to study their performance before making a final decision on which equipment to procure.