Japan will dispatch its biggest warship since World War II to protect a U.S. supply ship as early as Monday in the first such operation during peacetime under Japan’s national security laws as tensions mount in the region over North Korea, government sources said Sunday.
Following an order from Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, the Izumo will escort a U.S. Navy supply ship from waters off the Boso Peninsula, in Chiba Prefecture, to the area off Shikoku, according to the sources.
The Self-Defense Forces were newly assigned with guarding U.S. warships during peacetime under the new security laws that came into force in March last year. The laws primarily enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of an ally under attack, and expand the scope of SDF activities overseas.
The 249-meter-long Izumo is as large as Japan’s WWII-era carriers and can operate up to nine helicopters. It resembles the amphibious assault carriers used by the U.S. military but lacks their well deck for launching landing craft and other vessels.
Japan in recent years, particularly under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been stretching the limits of its pacifist Constitution. The government has designated the Izumo as a destroyer because the Constitution forbids the acquisition of offensive weapons. The vessel, nonetheless, allows Japan to project military power well beyond its territory.
Based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, which is also home to the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the Izumo’s primary mission is anti-submarine warfare.
With the new task, the SDF could in the future see more bolstered responsibilities based on the security laws.
It will follow the duties given to Ground Self-Defense Force engineering personnel, though not actually performed, to defend U.N. personnel and other members on a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan who come under attack at locations away from their usual area of activity.
In order to guard arms and other equipment belonging to the U.S. military, SDF personnel are allowed to make the minimum necessary use of weapons.
The SDF was previously allowed to defend its own aircraft and vessels, but the laws expanded the scope of protection to include the military equipment of the U.S. and other countries with close security ties to Japan.
The vessel may provide fuel and other supplies for ships in the U.S. Navy strike group led by the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, which arrived in the Sea of Japan over the weekend amid growing tensions over the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Under operational guidelines adopted by the government last December, the defense minister is delegated to make an independent decision on whether to sign off on any U.S. request for an SDF escort of U.S. warships.
The first such request must be discussed by the National Security Council in view of the need for a high-level political decision.
The guidelines have a provision on information disclosure, but the government plans to withhold information on the implementation of the coming mission, citing concerns that the activities of the SDF and the U.S. military might be inferred to the detriment of their safety, the sources said.
In London on Saturday, Abe blasted North Korea for test-firing a missile earlier in the day.
“Despite strong warnings by the international community, North Korea today went through its ballistic missile launch. It is a grave threat to our country. This is absolutely not acceptable. We strongly condemn such acts,” Abe told reporters.
Abe also said China plays a key role in persuading the North to abandon its nuclear and missile development.
“As prime minister I am focusing on China’s response,” he said. “China, I hope, will play a constructive role . . . it is my high expectation that China will perform its role properly.”