James Holmes

Japan’s Cold War Navy

“An unintended consequence of Cold War maritime strategy is that the JMSDF remains a partial 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.