Japan's Cold War Navy
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Japan's Cold War Navy


A Chinese friend raises an excellent point about the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s fitness for a one-on-one engagement against China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. To wit: the JMSDF was founded mainly as an appendage of the Cold War U.S. Pacific Fleet. While the sea service has expanded its repertoire since the Cold War—dispatching minesweepers to the Persian Gulf in 1991, refueling coalition naval forces in the Indian Ocean after 9/11, and patrolling the Gulf of Aden for pirates—it remains largely true to its founding missions to this day.

Under the division of labor worked out between the two navies, the U.S. Navy supplied the offensive firepower, manifest in aircraft carriers and other high-end implements of war. The defensive-minded JMSDF acted as a gapfiller, making itself proficient atniche missions like minesweeping, anti-submarine warfare, and offensive submarine warfare. Japanese mariners performed these duties with aplomb. The composite U.S.-Japanese fleet kept the Soviet Navy largely in check, complicating Soviet ships’ egress from ports like Vladivostok into the broad Pacific Ocean. Many skippers chose not to bother.Though such endeavors took place mostly out of public view, they constituted one of the success stories of the Cold War.

An unintended consequence of Cold War maritime strategy is that the JMSDF remains a partial navy animated by a partial strategy, doctrine, and force structure. Fighting alone against a balanced peer navy would be tough. Whereas the U.S. Navy allocates warships to “expeditionary strike groups” and “amphibious ready groups,” as befits its offensive character, the Japanese fleet is organized into “escort flotillas” homeported at bases like Yokosuka and Sasebo. Escorts are intrinsically defensive assets. And with only five combat logistics ships in its inventory—ships that refuel and rearm combatant ships on the high seas, letting them remain on station longer—the JMSDF would be hard-pressed to sustain operations far from base without American logistical help.

Alone, then, the JMSDF is an unbalanced force—unlike the larger, increasingly balanced PLA Navy it faces across the Yellow Sea. By no means is this a knock against Japanese ships, weaponry, or crews. But it does suggest that the sea service would find it hard to fight the PLA without U.S. support. That would limit Tokyo’s unilateral options for a conflagration over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, to cite the controversy that has dominated headlines of late.

Why? Because such a contingency would have a weaker claim on American interests and sympathies than would an assault on the Ryukyus, the home islands, or Japanese forces.U.S. leaders might balk at a risky, potentially costly conflict remote from U.S. interests—a conflict that could well make a permanent enemy of China, Asia’s foremost power. While they would probably honor their commitments to Japan’s defense, they would do so with no particular enthusiasm. Disagreement, delay, and missed opportunities might ensue in alliance circles.

Consequently, it behooves Tokyo to cultivate a degree of independence from Washington. Filling out the JMSDF force structure, drawing up a maritime strategy that holds open the option of fighting without the U.S. Navy, and readying officers and crews to go it alonewould render the JMSDF a well-rounded fleet. Such a fleet would deter—and counter—aggression better than one dependent on outside support.

Self-help is a time-honored principle of international relations in this hardscrabble world of ours. It’s a principle worth rediscovering for Japan.

Nicholas A. Brown
January 20, 2013 at 15:17

Hear! hear!  Surely if a national government's assertions are legally sound then it should have no objection to entrusting the ICJ with the dispute.  No serious commentator is claiming the ICJ is anything other than neutral.  Clearly the costs of a military enterprise will far outstrip those of a peaceful legal proceeding.  So what conclusion is an observer to draw from a country's refusal to consent to seek a resolution by such means?

January 20, 2013 at 15:02

Mare02 is only playing being Asian.  100% white kid trying to fake a written accent.

October 19, 2012 at 12:20

Whit all due respect sir, im not an expert, but perhaps in your eargeness for make a commnet you forgot or ignore just a very few things:
1 – Aside of the US ,Japan have the best equiped and trained anti-subamrine force in the Asia-pacific region. Is the main legacy of Japan's Cold War rol of be just a "navy of escorts".
2 – Chinese submarines are know for be cheap and noisy, meaning that they rely on quantity and are more threatening when they stay still, because when they move they can be easely hunted down. In other words they are better for setup a defense in ambush and not a very good choice for moving in a "sneak counter-attack".
They can try, but in my humble opinion the odds for them are not very high. But like i said I am not an expert, so if you still think that I am wrong, please correct me with convincing arguments backed by data from trusted sources. Because unlike some people that seems to like laughing to others peoples opinIons, I try to respect others and learn more from them. But also I am not an english native speaker, so there is the small chance that you are just joking around by throwing what it may look like a totally casual an deeply uninformed idea mean to provoke a reaction, perhaps implied by your use of an emoticon. Then I apology to you in advance for taking your comment too seriuosly instead of just laugh of your jest.

October 19, 2012 at 10:53

@John Chan
Just two questions:
1 – After saw on TV many people in the PRC behaving inv iolent ways that the CCP callled "not a rational way of show patriotism" (BTW behavior that dont happened in Japan), how many japanese you thinik that buy the idea that many chinese are not going to be VERY happy of a Sino-Japanese war?
2 – I think that when you say "white man" you imply western countries and in special the US. Do the president of the US, Barack Obama look like a white man to you?

October 17, 2012 at 06:05

Oh, and what happens when they sneak up on you in those subs and launch a counter strike? Listen, war is way worse than you think, way more complex than you can imagine. But, it's entertaining to listen to all these armchair generals on TD. :)

John Chan
October 17, 2012 at 01:57

The 1979 war was fought on the Vietnamese ground, and Vietnamese Central Government had to evict from Hanoi in the advent of PLA bombardment, and you call it "Chinese got spanked?" What kind of logic is it? Vietnamese logic or Ah-Q spirit?
Perhaps the Vietnamese would call the French brutal colonization of Vietnam as "French got spanked" too.

John Chan
October 17, 2012 at 01:36

Why do Asians have to kill each other for the benefits/entertainment of the aliens that are thousands miles away from Asia on the other side of the Pacific Ocean?
Asia can self-sustain with abundant resources and market, there is nothing the Asians need from that place those aliens comes from. Those white aliens brought Asians nothing good but misery.
It's time for Asians to get out the shadow of those white aliens and mange their own businesses. Asians need peace and prosperity, not weapons to kill each other to entertain the aliens inserting themselves into Asia uninvited.

October 16, 2012 at 10:10

Japan building an aircrat carrier? What an awful idea. Imagine what is going to happen, japanese carrier sail, the PRC fire a dozen of anti-ship ballistic missiles DF-21 for make sure tha tat least one hit the target, carrier sunk, "Game Over". Perhaps you think, well… Japan can buy long-range fighters and bombers and win wit hair superiority. Imagine this, the PRC fire cruise missiles and/or ballistic missiles with conventional warheads and/or send stealth J-20 armed with surgical bombs to Japanese airbases, "Game Over". The only trump card of Japan, is have the best conventional submarines in the world. We are better defended by investing in more advanced and bigger submarines with even more firepower, like carry 30 VLS cells with anti-ship supersonic missiles. Because submarines is the only weapon that the PRC cant' disable with a preventive attack.

October 16, 2012 at 09:47

Killing unarmed fisermen (cowardice act) is not spanking. The 1979 war is the one that the chinese got spanked.

Leonard R.
October 16, 2012 at 02:05

I have not been accused of being soft on China. But it seems to me, this is a dispute the ICJ could decide fairly.  Beijing and Taipei both have arguable claims. So does Tokyo. I don't know who would win. But that's what the Hague is for. 

talking points
October 16, 2012 at 00:17

Japan cannot rearm quickly enough. Of course Chinese leadership should be wise and patient. increasing military budget to 2.5% of GDP is the way to go. increase nuclear capability is a must.

Be Way
October 15, 2012 at 20:55

"Plan and China are paper tigers?"
Maybe you aint' smart enough to understand how Korea War was fought to a statement, or what is the deadly outcome to the India's forward policy in Tibet, or even the spanking of Vietnam over Spratly Islands.    Don't say the Japanese have not be warned of the consequence if they want to try to act irrationally.

October 15, 2012 at 20:42

are you so sure of that?
if i were China, and i were looking to sieze territory by force, my first move would be to target known naval bases in the area with cruise missile bombardment (no nukes, therefore, no SRBMs), in order to cripple the naval forces stationed there; with the bulk of the Japanese navy hopefully eliminated, a smart move would be to then surround the islands with an anti-aircraft/anti-ship naval task force, to pick off any stragglers as well as to shoot down any scouting aircraft. Finally, the islands could have a few AA/AS batteries installed on them to cement that claim until construction crews could arrive to create permanent habitiation structures; US wargames as early as 1993 predicted that if China were to use the inventory that it has today (this inventory was predicted at that time), it would be able to remove all US bases from the region within a matter of hours, thus isolating its allies for long enough that any further intervention on the part of the US would prove pointless due to the amount of time needed to send additional reinforcements.

October 15, 2012 at 20:21

any conflict over the islands would see the fighting occur in an area 10x closer to china than japan(go see a map of the islands), and since the islands are uninhabited(except by goats) japan would hardly be the one on the defensive given the fighting is not occuring in an area they already control despsite what the main stream media would have you beleieve, PRC and ROC ships are now sailing by the area with impunity where they would not have done so before because of japanese provokation. in addition to not being on defensive japan also has to deal with a vast range of weapons that are based on mainland china which can reach the (by comparasion) very close by islands in its attempt to remove chinese ships from the area. i dont not belive japan has the capability alone to force china out of an area so much closer to the chinese mainland than the japanese mainland. the US would face an extremely difficult choice should fighting break out.

Chuck Hill
October 15, 2012 at 20:07

The Japanese seem to be moving in this direction. They are developing an amphibious landing capability, buying amphibious armored personnel carriers. New 27,000 ton aircraft carrying "destroyers" may some day launch F-35Bs.

October 15, 2012 at 13:48

Any military conflict over the Senkaku would be, for Japan, defensive. Japan can easily cope with this. If the PLAN tried to widen the conflict the US Navy can cope.
Nothing to worry about. PLAN and China are paper tigers.

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