Second MSDF destroyer joins mission to protect U.S. Navy ship

Kyodo, JIJI

A second Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel has joined the first-ever mission to escort a U.S. Navy supply ship, a move allowed under new security legislation, government and other sources said Wednesday.

The Sazanami, a destroyer, joined the mission, which initially involved only the a helicopter carrier Izumo, after leaving the MSDF base in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, on Tuesday, the sources said. The escort mission was scheduled to end on Wednesday.

After the mission, the two MSDF vessels are due to take part in an international fleet review in Singapore on May 15.

The supply ship is likely to provide fuel to other U.S. vessels deployed in the Sea of Japan, including those working in concert with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sent to the region amid heightened tensions over North Korea.

The 19,500-ton Izumo departed from a base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Monday before joining the U.S. Navy ship. The mission marks the first enabled by legislation that expanded the role of the Self-Defense Forces, which took effect last year.

Government officials said the escorting mission was intended to highlight the strength of the Japan-U.S. bilateral security alliance and to warn North Korea against further missile or nuclear tests.

At the same time, however, the operation apparently reflected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to demonstrate certain achievements under the security legislation, which he had been eager to pass.

“The operation is intended to tout the strength of Japan-U.S. collaboration” at a time when tensions are growing over North Korea, a senior defense official said.

But some questioned the significance of the operation, claiming that the area where the escort mission is taking place — waters off Japan’s Pacific coast — is less vulnerable to North Korean threats.

“The SDF’s protection is not always necessary” in the waters, a government source said.

In addition, some said the ships are not suited to protect other vessels because they aren’t heavily armed. Furthermore, escorting the U.S. ship was not the main mission, as the MSDF vessels were on their way to the event in Singapore.

Critics said the Abe government’s only intention was to achieve a milestone on the security front by ordering the escort mission in relatively safe waters.