Japan expanding naval capabilities as challenges increase

Japan expanding naval capabilities as challenges increase

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer Kurama. (Reuters)

The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) is expanding its capabilities, allowing for Tokyo to increasingly police maritime waters. This growing proficiency has already been applied both near Japan and further afield in the Gulf of Aden, while the development of the JMSDF’s capabilities is in readiness for deployment in conjunction with the US-led maritime patrols in the Strait of Hormuz.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is an active advocate of strengthening the JMSDF in response to the environment of growing threats around Japan and Northeast Asia. Territorial disputes, sovereignty claims and historical grievances all play into Japan’s thinking with regards to defense and protection. Tokyo is expanding its submarine force from 16 to 22 craft for greater maritime protection.

The JMSDF’s doctrine calls for naval antiaircraft and antisubmarine warfare missions and an intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capability to defend Japan from aerial and sub-surface threats presented by regional neighbors like China and North Korea. Consequently, the JMSDF inventory can guard Japan and its maritime territory from any infringement of territory or attack.

It is within this sense that Japan is modernizing its “Kaga” and “Izumo” battleships (or “helicopter destroyers”) in order to launch F-35 stealth fighters (up to 40 of the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the aircraft are expected to be bought, in addition to the conventional F-35A variants already being purchased by the Japanese air force) in the coming five to 10 years.

In other words, Japan will have maritime platforms that basically function as a type of aircraft carrier. The plan is to be able to quickly deploy Japanese military assets at sea and to serve as command ships that can be used to transport supplies or humanitarian aid through Asia. But, with 105 F-35s requested in total by Tokyo from the US, this new platform will give Japan added defensive muscle, protecting its territory in the intermediate term.

Nevertheless, these developments do not address current issues. Japan’s territorial disputes with both China and South Korea feed Tokyo’s need to increase the size of the JMSDF.

For now, Japanese police from Okinawa will be called upon to respond to border issues regarding the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The Japanese National Police Agency’s (JNPA) 2020 budget calls for an additional 159 police officers to respond to “armed groups invading isolated islands.” There have been numerous disputes in the air and at sea, with Chinese ships, submarines and aircraft penetrating Japan’s adjoining zone just outside its territorial waters. The Japan Coast Guard has traditionally served as a first responder to any territorial incursions in the East China Sea. The JMSDF is to be called in if necessary, while the new police unit will coordinate with the coast guard.

Issues involving the southernmost of the Kuril Islands may also be in Tokyo’s calculus, depending on a scenario involving Russia. That the JNPA is being tasked with such a mission illustrates the entire scope of how Japan sees territorial safety and policing strategy.

It should be noted that the JMSDF is experienced in maritime operations, specifically counterpiracy off the coast of Somalia. Japan is likely to send a destroyer from its counterpiracy patrols with Combined Task Force (CTF) 151, which is headquartered in Bahrain but operates out of Djibouti, to the Strait of Hormuz. This mission gives Japan a chance to test its defensive maritime doctrine. Other countries are also diverting their naval craft from CTF 151 to support America’s maritime protection construct. Australia is re-tasking one of its carriers from off of Somalia to the Arabian Gulf.

For Tokyo, Japan’s positive relationship with the Iranian government needs to be balanced with American interests.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

To be sure, the Trump administration is pressuring Tokyo to participate in the American-led coalition, but Tokyo wants a separate mission that is not formally linked to the US effort. This distinction is to avoid the appearance of taking sides in the Trump versus Iran dispute.

For Tokyo, Japan’s positive relationship with the Iranian government needs to be balanced with American interests because of US-Japan defensive agreements. In the Arabian Gulf, Japanese vessels make approximately 1,700 transits of the Strait of Hormuz each year, including 500 tanker transits. Yet Tokyo’s 2013 “Act on Special Measures concerning the Security of Japanese Flagged Vessels in Areas that Are Highly Susceptible to Acts of Piracy” makes it possible to have security guards on board a Japanese ship, provided certain requirements are met, and allows them to carry small arms for the purpose of security operations. Japan obviously cannot cover all of this traffic, but the balanced approach taken by Tokyo toward Tehran helps to keep the two countries’ relationship in a sense of equilibrium and distinctiveness.

Overall, Japan is adjusting to new maritime challenges and requirements. Careful thinking about how best to approach foreign policy questions is key for Tokyo, especially in that delicate balance between Washington and Tehran. It is clear that Japan will be joining maritime operations in the Strait of Hormuz, but Tokyo will play its part in an honorable way.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik
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