While Japan's dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has been notable for a number of reasons — mostly negative — one of the few positive elements has been the refusal of either side to send in the military. That may have changed with the recent deployment of Chengdu J-10 and Mitsubishi/Boeing F-15 fighter aircraft after a Chinese Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft headed toward the islands, but so far, at least, the confrontations have been limited to coast guard and other maritime paramilitary organizations.
For military strategists – and defense journalists – that means we are still in the dark as to how the two countries' navies would handle such a contingency. China's development into a full spectrum, blue-water navy is well catalogued, whether it is the commissioning of its Type 071 landing platform docks (LPDs), new Type 52D frigates, Type 51A destroyers or Liaoning, its Kusnetsov-class aircraft carrier. But what about Japan?
Back in October 2012, James Holmes argued convincingly that Japan had a “Cold War navy” designed to fill specific niches in a mutually beneficial partnership with the United States.“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 [Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force] acted as a gapfiller, making itself proficient at niche missions like minesweeping, anti-submarine warfare, and offensive submarine warfare."
I'm not about to argue with that assessment, which brings us to the next point: is Japan doing anything to change this situation, and if so, what?
Speaking to IHS Jane's Navy International in October, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of staff at the JMSDF, sounded like he was more interested in steadying the ship than bringing new capabilities on board. He highlighted Japan's role in recent international minesweeping drills and new procurements such as a 5,000-ton anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyer; two Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs) to replace ageing P-3C Orions; and modernization of the service's Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.
"The developments in C4ISR and ASW platforms are in line with the JMSDF's goal of improving specific capabilities,” Adm Kawano noted. He also mentioned the upgrade of two destroyers so they can play a part in Japan's SM-3 ballistic missile defense system, along with the expansion of the submarine fleet from 16 to 22 boats.
So far, so low key: no one could accuse the JMSDF of an expansionist agenda – just a steady ramping up of the "defensive-minded" capabilities at which it already excels. But if you are looking for evidence of a slightly more proactive stance to match Japan's new policy of "active deterrence", then some recent procurements and exercises make the picture a little more interesting.
First up are the navy's new 22DDH helicopter carriers, the first of which is currently being built by IHI Marine in Yokohama and will be ready in 2015. At 248 m long and with a displacement of 27,000 tons (full), it dwarfs the 197-m long, 19,000-ton Hyuga-class “helicopter destroyers” that are currently the JMSDF's largest vessels. Like the Hyuga class, two are being built.