Japan’s Navy: Sailing Towards the Future

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

Japan’s Navy: Sailing Towards the Future

While China’s growing naval power grabs headlines, Japan’s evolving navy might just be the real story.

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.

Unlike the Hyuga and its sister ship, Ise, the 22DDH will not be fitted with a torpedo launch system aboard, instead relying on its seven ASW helicopters to fulfill that task. What is clear about 22DDH (which derives its name from the 22nd year of the Heisei era – or 2010), is that it could quite easily double up as the kind of light aircraft carrier that the U.S. Marine Corps uses for expeditionary operations, although it lacks a well deck (something that a senior U.S. marine told me was "unforgivable" – and he was only half joking).

Along with the submarine fleet's ASW service in the Cold War, amphibious landings and island defense are among the few JMSDF operations that come close to deploying the kind of offensive capability that might rile defenders of Article 9 of the Constitution. Interestingly, it's not a brand new capability: the JMSDF has had “true” amphibious vessels in the form of three 14,000-ton Oosumi-class dock landing ships (LSDs, officially tank-landing ships) since the late 1990s. What has changed is the threat perception: until recently the JMSDF did not train for amphibious landings and so far has resisted the urge to create a marine corps.

This is changing: in Guam in late 2012 Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) rangers took part in landing training with U.S. Marines "on real islands," in the words of a Ministry of Defense (MoD) spokesman, and Adm. Kawano noted that Japan's offshore islands remain vulnerable to attack. The JGSDF practiced another amphibious landing drill recently, although this was launched from helicopters rather than ships. While no one explicitly mentioned the Senkaku Islands, a Chinese attack would provide a tantalizing test case for how confident Japanese military planners were in these upgraded capabilities.

The recent landing drills and the Senkaku dispute notwithstanding, in the medium to long-term the MoD and top brass are more concerned with contingencies around Okinawa. A leaked 1997 Japanese MoD planning documentand James Holmes – noted that Miyako and Ishigaki islands are both seen as potential Chinese targets to allow the PLA Navy to break out of the First Island Chain and into the Pacific proper.

It's important to note that these are just contingencies: much would need to go wrong for China to decide that an invasion of Japanese territory was the best way to solve whatever crisis the two countries found themselves in. And of course, if that invasion involved Okinawa, then the U.S. Marine Corps III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) based at Camp Courtney on the main island would almost certainly have a major part to play in the response. 

Away from worse-case scenarios and back in the real world, Japan's navy is facing up to a few new realities. The participation of two JMSDF destroyers in the international anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden has provided valuable experience, while P-3Cs based at Djibouti have also provided excellent on-the-job training and internationalization for its aviation crews. Those crews are now waiting for the arrival of the new Kawasaki P-1 Maritime Patrol Aircrafts (MPAs), while Prime Minister Abe's recent interest in the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle could add a powerful new tool in Japan's reconnaissance web around its southwestern islands. Throw in the transfer of Japanese F-15s to Naha and a new early warning radar station to be built on Yonaguni island, which is only 110 km from Taiwan – and Tokyo's capabilities in that part of the world start looking quite formidable. Whether the JMSDF is willing to take on a more aggressive posture under the direction of a more proactive government remains an open question. Yet, it seems that the service – like the SDF as a whole – is moving, albeit slowly, away from its Cold War niche and into a broader, multi-mission role.

James Hardy is Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.