Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Oct. 3 that the Self-Defense Forces has exchanged a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. armed forces that enables SDF tanker airplanes to provide aerial refueling to U.S. military aircraft during a joint military drill. His statement came after a source in Washington at the U.S. Department of Defense disclosed the existence of the MOU the previous day.

The MOU was exchanged in October 2010 between the SDF and the U.S. 5th Air Force based at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo, which controls the U.S. air forces in Japan. Until the MOU, only aerial refueling from a U.S. tanker plane to a SDF plane was possible. The Air Self-Defense Force in 2010 started operating four KC-767 tanker planes based at Komaki Air Base in Aichi Prefecture. The aircraft is a tanker version of the commercial Boeing 767-200ER plane.

Concerning the fear that the MOU may pave the way for an SDF tanker plane refueling a U.S. plane engaged in a military operation — thus resulting in Japan’s exercising the right to a collective defense, which is not allowed under the war-renouncing Japanese Constitution — Mr. Fujimura said that the MOU does not involve “that level” of activities. But according to a Jiji Press report, the Japanese Defense Ministry has explained that air-to-air refueling from an ASDF tanker plane to a U.S. military plane is not limited to a military drill. It can be carried out as rear-area support for the U.S. military when a situation near Japan gravely affects Japan’s peace and security, or when a military attack on Japan from abroad has taken place or is feared to take place.

If so, the legal barrier against an ASDF tanker plane directly carrying out a joint and unified military operation with U.S. military planes is so low that the constitutional ban on the exercise of the right to collective defense could be easily violated.

Even in peacetime, if a U.S. military plane refueled by an ASDF tanker plane carries out a patrol mission against a neighboring country, it will cause a serious diplomatic problem.

Japan’s constitutional principle and its defense-only policy should be strictly upheld in its security cooperation with the United States. At least, the government should fully disclose the MOU’s content and make an announcement each time an ASDF plane provides midair refueling to a U.S. plane.

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