With tensions high on the Korean Peninsula, the Maritime Self-Defense Force on Monday began its first operation to safeguard U.S. military vessels since the enactment of two new security laws last year permitted such actions, sources familiar with the matter said.
The mission, ordered by Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, is apparently aimed at demonstrating the Japan-U.S. security alliance and deterring North Korea from further nuclear and missile tests.
The MSDF helicopter carrier Izumo left Yokosuka naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture in the morning and linked up with a U.S. Navy supply ship off the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture.
The Izumo, Japan’s largest postwar naval vessel, is expected to sail for two days in the Pacific toward waters in the Shikoku region, government sources said.
The supply ship escorted by the 19,500-ton Izumo is likely to refuel other U.S. vessels deployed in waters near Japan in anticipation of potential missile tests by North Korea, as well as ships sailing with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, stationed near the Korean Peninsula, the sources added.
The Carl Vinson and MSDF vessels entered the Sea of Japan on Saturday for exercises.
Although the pacifist nature of the Constitution puts a limit on Self-Defense Force activities, the security laws loosened those constraints by allowing SDF troops to guard vessels and weapons belonging to U.S. forces when the United States is engaged in activities beneficial to the defense of Japan.
The protection mission can be conducted in certain situations, including when the two are engaged in joint exercises or performing monitoring and data-gathering activities related to the North’s missile launches.
The MSDF personnel are allowed to use weapons to a certain extent to carry out the mission. But due to constitutional constraints, they must stay away from combat zones involving allied countries.
As Japan cannot constitutionally settle international disputes via “use of force,” the government restricts the area of SDF activities to ensure they will not be viewed as an “integral part” of military operations conducted by other countries.