Irony alert. The MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft – the most recent symbol of Tokyo and Washington's roughshod handling of the Okinawa base issue – could become a key part of the Japanese military's defense of the same island chain from a future Chinese invasion.
This was one of the many messages that came out of the recent landing of two US Marine Corps MV-22s on the flight deck of the JS Hyuga helicopter carrier. The landings on Hyuga, just one element of the ongoing Dawn Blitz exercises off the Californian coast, came only a year after the Okinawan prefectural government had heavily objected to the deployment of 12 MV-22s to the marines' Futenma air station in Ginowan.
In the view of the Okinawan government, Futenma is the last place that should host an aircraft with a troubled development history and controversial design. That two V-22s had already experienced "hard landings" (military speak for crashes) in 2012 did nothing to assuage the doubts of a population that remembers the August 2004 crash of a US Marine Corps CH-53D transport helicopter at Okinawa International University.
Tokyo's handling of the MV-22s' deployment to Okinawa was characteristically cack-handed – remember, this was the Democratic Party of Japan government whose first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, had to fall on his sword over broken election pledges to Okinawa over the base relocation issue.
Some tone deaf comments on the relocation issue by the Ministry of Defence's Okinawa bureau chief added to the anger on the islands and undermined the familiar bromides about "considering the feelings of the Okinawan population". Eventually, Tokyo opted for damage control, hoping that a slow, incremental introduction of the MV-22 to Okinawa after a shakedown in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, would take the heat out of the issue. In March it was announced that a second squadron would arrive in Japan in July. It too will first operate from Iwakuni before transitioning to Futenma.
Regardless of local opposition, there is almost no way that the U.S. Marine Corps was going to change its mind on the MV-22 deployment to Okinawa. As Lt. General Terry G. Robling, Commander, U. S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, recently told The Diplomat, the Osprey offers "speed, range and presence" along with a healthy boost in payload over CH-46 Sea Knight that it is replacing. These are characteristics that allow the Marine Corps to carry out the kind of expeditionary missions at land and sea that are its bread and butter – and tie in with the emerging preference for mobile and rapid reaction forces that its political masters dream about.
All of which brings us back to Dawn Blitz.
While military spokespeople will try to plead otherwise, exercises – international or otherwise – are 90% sales pitches. They can be geopolitical sale pitches, demonstrating shows of force, deterrence, and the importance of bilateral ties to a domestic or international audience, or they can be hardware sales pitches. A recent example of the former are the U.S. Air Force B-2 bombing drills that took place in South Korea earlier in 2013.
An example of the latter is the UK's unfettered deployment of Royal Air Force Typhoons to air drills in India and Malaysia, which at the time just happened to be in the market for new fighter aircraft. The USMC did something similar in October 2012 when it allowed Philippine soldiers to train with M777 lightweight howitzers during PHIBLEX 2013, a joint amphibious landing exercise based out of Subic Bay.
Last week's Hyuga landing, then, was the latest in a long line of materiel sales pitches masquerading as military training exercises, although to their credit US officials aren't trying too hard to hide the fact.
UMSC Commandant General James Amos described the landing as “pretty monumental”, while Dawn Blitz's commanding officer, USMC Brigadier General John Broadmeadow, told reporters that the landing gave the United States "an opportunity to enhance our long-standing relationship with the Japanese and to highlight the capabilities of the MV-22 Osprey, which allows the Marine Corps to quickly respond to a crisis when launched from sea or land".
Gen Robling outlined a potential real-life scenario in which the Marines deployed to assist the Philippines in its ongoing dispute with China at Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Reef). For Japan, a similar scenario – and identical adversary – was outlined in policy documents as far back as 1997, in which tactical planners formulated theoretical responses to a Chinese invasion of the Miyako, Ishigaki and Yonaguni islands. The estimate presumed that a People's Liberation Army (PLA) airborne division or brigade would make a surprise attack and take the islands' inhabitants as hostage to complicate recovery operations.
Why might China do this? Access to the West Pacific. PLA Navy planners know they need to secure a passage out of the “first island chain” — and control of the islands either side of the Miyako strait would certainly help with that. Meanwhile, the strategic position of Yonaguni close to Taiwan may also make it a tempting target for PLA planners worrying about US intervention in any military 'reunification' campaign.
Beyond the Hyuga landing, other recent U.S.-Japanese drills in the Marianas and the other elements of Dawn Blitz illustrate that Japan is already far down the path of establishing a capability to retake islands in the Nansei chain, as are reports that it is close to establishing an island assault unit. Some in London have suggested that the Royal Marines get in on the act as part of the UK and Japan's new strategic partnership, and a revamped Western Army Infantry Regiment would certainly be closer in size and capability to the UK's amphibious force (standing strength 8,310) than the U.S. Marine Corps (202,000).
This may well happen – as noted, military training is as much a political tool as a capability enhancement. But expect Japan to follow US doctrine – and buy U.S. kit. It's already acquiring four of the Marines' AAV-7AI amphibious assault vehicles for testing, while the FY13 budget has some petty cash put aside to investigate the "development and operation of tilt-rotor aircraft in foreign countries". It's pretty much a given that this means the MV-22, as while there are other tilt-rotor projects out there, none is in service yet.
James Hardy is the Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of IHS.