Japan’s New (Defensive) Attack Force
Image Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

Japan’s New (Defensive) Attack Force


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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief