When US President Barack Obama cancelled his trip to Asia in early October, America’s regional allies wondered whether America, just like its president, was becoming fatally weakened by Washington’s systemic failures – whether one day soon it might no longer have the power or the energy to get things done on the world stage.
Japan’s leaders may have shared those concerns, but if so they didn’t let on. Even as Washington tied itself up in knots, the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee (SCC) – the “2+2” comprising the countries’ foreign and defense ministers – was announcing a potentially far-reaching revamp of the Japan-U.S. alliance. As part of their new vision, the Japanese military will shoulder a greater share of the joint security burden, something the U.S. government – and some Japanese conservatives – have wanted to happen for a very long time.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a leading proponent of the more active Japan that is emerging. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal this week, Abe asserted the view that “Japan is expected to exert leadership … in the field of security in the Asia-Pacific,” and warned China that the outcome would not be peaceful if it should try to change the status quo by force – even as Japan scrambled fighter aircraft on three consecutive days in response to Chinese activity.
Against this worrying backdrop, the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) and the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) have both been enhancing their capabilities with a view to protecting the country’s maritime interests. Abe may not have initiated this process, but he is doing what he can to accelerate it, having handed the Ministry of Defense (MoD) its first budget increase in over a decade at the start of the year.
Most eye-catching of all – especially in light of Japan’s disagreements with China – has been Tokyo’s emphasis on the JSDF’s amphibious capabilities. The news this week that the MoD is prepping a major amphibious landing drill that began on November 1 was a restatement of this ambition, and the exercise will be the latest in a long series of moves designed to equip the JSDF with a credible amphibious deterrent.
Walk Before You Can Run (Up Any Beaches)
If Japan is to assume a greater share of the regional security burden, then the JSDF needs to acquire the capability to manage the country’s territorial disputes independently, without U.S. forces. It can already operate independently in most respects, and it already possesses most elements of an amphibious capability, notably three Osumi-class landing ship tanks (LSTs) alongside six landing craft air cushions (LCACs) and a mix of smaller landing craft, and now also the Hyuga- and Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to supply the necessary air lift. However, a ship-to-shore capability has always been the missing piece of the puzzle. Beach-storming was taboo for the JSDF – something deemed too aggressive for the country’s pacifist constitution.
Changes in the political wind have now made amphibious operations seem more palatable to Japanese decision-makers. However, the scale of the upcoming drill – which the MoD says will involve 34,000 personnel – should not be confused with the size of the amphibious force Japan is currently assembling. The new Amphibious Preparatory Unit – as the MoD is calling its L-plate marines, at least for now – will be a relatively small team: a specialist unit of the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), rather than a fully fledged Marine Corps. It will have 700 men initially, expanding to 3,000 over time.
The unit’s job will be to respond “to attacks on remote islets,” as the MoD’s 2014 budget request explains. There is only one group of remote islets that Japan really has in mind: the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, whose ownership it disputes with China. While Japan also has territorial disputes with Russia and South Korea, those islands are not under Japanese control, and it is extremely hard to imagine Tokyo dispatching troops in a bid to capture them. The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, on the other hand, are under Japanese control, and this enables Tokyo to frame an amphibious landing as a defensive operation designed to protect or to recapture the Senkaku in response to Chinese aggression.
Japan’s marines, in other words, will be the first in the world tasked exclusively with defending one specific, tiny and uninhabited location.
There are three parts to the process of building this new deterrent: teaching the new marines how to be marines, equipping the unit with the right capabilities, and, more broadly, reconfiguring the JSDF and JCG’s posture in southwest Japan.
By all accounts, the learning part is proceeding rapidly. The November exercise will build on other amphibious drills the GSDF has undertaken, including participation since 2005 in the regular “Iron Fist” exercises in the U.S. More significantly, the JSDF sent an amphibious task force across the Pacific to take part in the “Dawn Blitz” exercise in July, in what was regarded as a breakthrough demonstration of the JSDF’s fast-improving amphibious knowhow. According to Grant Newsham, a former U.S. Marine Liaison Officer to the GSDF, what the Japanese military did at Dawn Blitz was nothing short of “historic,” not just as a demonstration of amphibious landings, but as a sign of the GSDF and the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s newfound ability to work together – joint operations being a traditional blind spot for the Japanese military, but a must for amphibious missions.
The MoD’s 2014 budget request clearly states its procurement objectives in terms of equipping the new marine unit. Unsurprisingly, given the central role the U.S. Marine Corp (USMC) have assumed in training their Japanese counterparts, the Japanese unit is following the USMC playbook.
The ship-to-shore gap will be filled with amphibious assault vehicles – small numbers of test AAVs are already being acquired – and the MoD is studying the MV-22 Osprey with a view to initiating procurement in 2015. Not mentioned in the budget request is the F-35B, the STOVL version of the US’s new frontline fighter aircraft, which the US Marines will operate (Japan is currently procuring only the conventional F-35A). The ability to operate fast jets from Okinawa means that the Japanese marines may not require F-35Bs as air cover, given that their sole focus will be the Diaoyu/Senkaku, but in time a requirement for a marine-specific fighter may emerge.
However, while following the USMC’s well-worn procurement path may be the easiest option, it will not yield the best results, according to critics of U.S. Marine procurement from within the USMC itself. David Fuquea, an associate professor at the U.S. Navy War College, regards the Osprey as “the most revolutionary platform for amphibious operations since the helicopter,” and strongly encourages the JSDF to buy it. However, he says the JSDF should part ways with the U.S. Marines when it comes to the AAV – which he dismisses as World War II technology – and he instead advises Japan to buy highly mobile, tougher vehicles as well as mobile artillery which can be transported, along with the marines themselves, by the Osprey.
Fuquea’s argument is compelling given Japan’s single objective of holding or capturing the Senkaku. The JSDF will need to get boots on the ground as quickly as possible in the event of a conflict – something the Osprey delivers – but the marines then need the right equipment to hold their position once they get there. And if their task is to dislodge Chinese forces that have already landed, Fuquea warns that slow-moving AAVs are unlikely to survive as they lumber towards the beach: he says Japan needs more high-speed landing craft and armored vehicles that are more survivable than AAVs if they are to succeed.
The new marine unit looks set to be based in Sasebo, in western Kyushu, but that is not the nearest of locations for a unit with its attention trained only on the Senkaku.
The JSDF is currently reinforcing elsewhere in Okinawa Prefecture, of which the Senkaku are a part. The GSDF is deploying a new “coastal observation unit” to Yonaguni island – the nearest point to the Senkaku at the end of the Ryukyu chain – and is reportedly looking at the option of deploying anti-ship missiles to nearby Ishigaki (though this has not been confirmed by the MoD). It is not hard to imagine some marine units moving south to one of these locations at some point in the future, to put the Senkaku within easier reach.
In the meantime, the Coast Guard unit based in Ishigaki is also receiving investment – and personal encouragement from Shinzo Abe – as a 600-man Senkaku patrol unit is established there. This new JCG unit will be the civilian equivalent of the new marine regiment – an outfit tasked solely with monitoring and protecting the Senkaku from China.
So while budget cuts and political gridlock may indeed undermine the ability of the U.S. to intervene in regional disputes, Japan is sending a very clear signal to China: it plans to hold onto the Senkaku islands, with or without American help.