TOKYO/SASEBO, NAGASAKI PREF. – Japan on Saturday activated its first marine unit since World War II trained to counter invaders occupying Japanese islands along the edge of the East China Sea that Tokyo fears are vulnerable to attack by China.
In a ceremony held at a military base near Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, about 1,500 members of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) wearing camouflage took part in the event.
“Given the increasingly difficult defense and security situation surrounding Japan, defense of our islands has become a critical mandate,” Vice Defense Minister Tomohiro Yamamoto said in a speech.
In front of spectators, troops conducted a 20-minute mock exercise recapturing a remote island from invaders.
The formation of the marine brigade is controversial because amphibious units can project military force and could, critics warn, be used to threaten Japan’s neighbors. In its post-World War II Constitution, Japan renounced the right to wage war.
The brigade is the latest component of a growing marine force that includes helicopter carriers, amphibious ships, Osprey tilt-rotor troop carriers and amphibious assault vehicles, meant to deter China as it pushes for easier access to the Western Pacific.
China, which dominates the South China Sea, is outpacing Japan in defense spending.
In 2018, Beijing, which claims the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, will spend over 1.1 trillion yuan ($176.5 billion) on its armed forces — more than three times as much as Japan.
The activation of the 2,100 strong ARDB takes Japan a step closer to creating a force similar to a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) able to plan and execute operations at sea far from its home base.
“They’ve already demonstrated the ability to put together an ad hoc MEU. But to have a solid, standing MEU capability requires concerted effort,” said Grant Newsham, a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
“If Japan put its mind to it, within a year or year and a half it could have a reasonable capability.”
Newsham, who helped train Japan’s first amphibious troops as a U.S. Marine Corps colonel liaison officer assigned to the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), said Japan still needs a joint navy-army amphibious headquarters to coordinate operations as well as more amphibious ships to carry troops and equipment.
Japanese military planners are already mulling some of those additions.
Its Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) wants to acquire F-35Bs to operate from its Izumo and Ise helicopter carriers, or from islands along the East China Sea, sources have said.
The United States last month deployed its F-35Bs for their first at-sea operations aboard the USS Wasp amphibious assault ship, which is based in Sasebo. The Kyushu port is also home to the Ise helicopter carrier and close to the ARDB’s base.
Separately, the GSDF may acquire small amphibious ships up to a 100 meters (328 feet) long to transport troops and equipment between islands and from ship to shore, two sources familiar with the discussion said. Japanese ground forces have not operated their own ships since World War II.
“The idea is to bring forces and gear on large ships to the main Okinawa island and then disperse them to other islands on smaller vessels,” said one of the sources, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to talk to the media.