Under new security laws that took effect last year, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has refueled U.S. ships patrolling to counter North Korean missile launches, a Japanese government source said Thursday.
The refueling missions to U.S. Aegis ships sailing in the Sea of Japan have been conducted since April, and this is the second instance in which the Self-Defense Forces were known to have performed their expanded roles under the security legislation.
The legislation has loosened the constraints of Japan’s war-renouncing postwar Constitution imposed on the activities of the defense forces, setting the stage for U.S. and Japanese troops to work more closely than ever.
Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said SDF personnel are engaging in activities to provide supplies to the U.S. military based on the legislation, but refrained from acknowledging specific operations.
“I cannot comment on the issue because it will unveil the details of the operations of the SDF and the U.S. military,” the chief Cabinet secretary said at a regular news conference.
In May, the MSDF engaged in a mission to protect a U.S. Navy vessel off Japan for the first time under the legislation, although Tokyo has not officially confirmed that operation to avoid any impact on U.S. military activities and bilateral relations.
According to the government source, the MSDF carried out the operations after a revised Japan-U.S. agreement on logistical cooperation between their forces took effect in April, reflecting the changes brought by Japan’s legislation.
MSDF and U.S. Aegis ships equipped with ballistic missile defense systems are engaging in patrolling activities around the clock to keep watch on North Korea, which has repeatedly test-fired missiles.
Japan had conducted refueling missions to its key ally in the past, but such operations were only made possible through the enactment of a special law or authorized for an occasion such as Japan-U.S. joint exercises.
For about eight years after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the SDF refueled ships assisting U.S.-led anti-terrorism operations in the Indian Ocean near Afghanistan under a special law.
The new security legislation, however, allows the SDF more flexibility than it had before, such as providing oil and other supplies to U.S. ships involved in operations to intercept ballistic missiles and counterpiracy activities.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said the legislation is intended to let Japan more actively contribute to peace and stability in the region, but it remains controversial among members of the public who think it undermines Japan’s postwar pacifism.