National | FOCUS

Japan’s new marines make their debut, but much preparatory work remains to be done

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

The Ground Self-Defense Force has marked a historic milestone with the launch of its first dedicated amphibious brigade, a type of unit that was long deemed too offensive to possess under Japan’s postwar defensive security policy.

“Our goal is to become the world’s top-class amphibious operation unit,” Maj. Gen. Shinichi Aoki, who leads the brigade, said at a news conference Saturday following a ceremony to mark the launch of the unit, which will be based in the port city of Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture.

The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps, is a fledgling unit that will face many challenges as it builds toward combat readiness to defend Japan’s remote islands in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

Until around 10 years ago, the development of amphibious tactics for landing troops on enemy-held shores was seen as taboo under the pacifist Constitution, which has limited the capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces to the “minimum necessary level.”

But China’s accelerating maritime expansion and tensions linked to its claim over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have pushed the government to beef up defenses for Japan’s southwestern islands that extend over 1,000 km from Kyushu toward Taiwan.

“I believe the presence of the amphibious forces will work quite well against countries with any intention to make advances toward our territory,” Koichi Isobe, a retired lieutenant general of the GSDF, said, adding that the “deterrence effect” is likely to be bolstered through collaboration between the Japanese and U.S. Marines.

During Saturday’s ceremony at GSDF Camp Ainoura in Sasebo, troops in camouflage face paint impressed the audience in a demonstration exercise carried out on a grass field, showing off skills such as rappelling from helicopters and rushing out from newly acquired amphibious assault vehicles to successfully “retake” an island.

But actual operations may not go as smoothly as they did in the 20-minute demonstration, with success largely hinging on whether enough troops and the necessary equipment can be swiftly transported to an island that has fallen into enemy hands.

While Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft are expected to play a key role in ferrying Japanese troops, the government has yet to win local consent for the planned deployment of the V-22 fleet at Saga Airport. Safety concerns were heightened after a GSDF helicopter crashed into a house in Saga Prefecture in February.

The government is considering tentatively placing the Ospreys at a GSDF camp in Chiba Prefecture, according to a government source, but that base is 1,000 kilometers from Camp Ainoura, where the amphibious force is stationed.

To be able to storm a beach, the brigade needs its amphibious assault vehicles brought close to shore by transport ships of the Maritime Self-Defense Force. But the combined capacity of the three existing ships falls short of loading the entire fleet of 52 vehicles, according to a person familiar with the matter.

If loaded fully with the armored assault vehicles, the MSDF vessels would then be left with no room to carry the large hovercraft needed to transport troops, tanks and other armored vehicles.

“I hope we can have an amphibious assault ship (like the United States to boost our transport capacity),” a GSDF member said, but he added that the MSDF may not be on the same page as it would like to devote resources to destroyers and submarines tasked with preventing islands from being invaded in the first place.

Isobe, also a senior fellow at Tokyo-based think tank Asia Pacific Initiative, said the “reinforcement of seaborne transport capacity is essential” for amphibious operations, along with an increase in the number of transport aircraft that can quickly mobilize GSDF troops from other parts of the country.

He also highlighted the need to secure an exercise area in the southwestern islands for the new brigade to hone their skills, with members not having many chances to conduct large-scale amphibious training in a beach area unless traveling to the United States.

Meanwhile, Robert Eldridge, an American expert on the SDF and other Japonese security issues, is skeptical that this “feeble” amphibious force is the solution to the Senkaku dispute, arguing that the Japanese government should do more to demonstrate its clear control over the uninhabited islets by setting up civilian infrastructure such as ports and lighthouses.

“I think the government is placing too much burden on the SDF (to defend the islets),” he said.

But Eldridge said Japan’s moves to possess amphibious capabilities are still “important” as they can also be useful for disaster relief, such as in situations when ordinary transport vessels cannot operate, and to deal with possible attacks by armed groups or terrorists.

The former official of the Marine Corps Installations Pacific in Okinawa said that to become “marine-like,” SDF personnel may also need more experience “in the field,” given that the SDF has never engaged in actual combat since its inception in 1954 under the war-renouncing Constitution.

“The SDF has joined various overseas missions over the past 25 years (including U.N. peacekeeping operations), through which they must have gained valuable experiences. While the current Japanese government appears largely reluctant in sending troops overseas, I think they should continue to grow in those experiences,” Eldridge said.

As the GSDF seeks to explore its new role in national defense, falling public confidence in the organization is likely to be the last thing it wants.

With the GSDF facing fresh accusations over an alleged cover-up of activity logs for an overseas mission, less than a year after a defense minister resigned over a cover-up scandal related to different GSDF activity logs, Eldridge indicated that “transparency and accountability” are key for the Japanese troops to continue to operate based on public support.