Interviews

Alessio Patalano on Japan’s Growing Naval Power

Aircraft carriers and F-35B stealth fighters: Japan is incrementally building up its offensive maritime capabilities.

Franz-Stefan Gady
Alessio Patalano on Japan’s Growing Naval Power
Credit: Alessio Patalano

The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady talks to Dr. Alessio Patalano, one of the world’s leading experts on Japanese naval power and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF). Dr. Patalano is a reader in War Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London and director of the Asian Security & Warfare Research Group. He has published widely on Japanese naval history, strategy, and contemporary maritime issues in East Asia. Notably, he is the author of the book Post-war Japan as a Sea Power, in which he analyzes the imperial legacy and the role of Japan’s defeat in World War II in shaping today’s JMSDF.

In this interview with The Diplomat, Patalano talks about the future trajectory of Japanese naval power, shifting procurement priorities within the JMSDF, and the changing strategic maritime landscape in Asia.

The Diplomat: What makes the JMSDF different from other regional navies?

In three words: heritage, legacy, and experience. The Japanese navy is unique in East Asia in that it is the only professional naval organization with a history dating back to the 19th century. Then, the Imperial Japanese navy became a symbol of traditions and modernity, the ultimate gauge of the rise of Japan as a modern state. Such a heritage matters because it informs esprit de corps, it reminds members of the organization why their job matters, and it signals to others the uncompromising standards of professionalism. Such a heritage lives on in the JMSDF, from the grounds of the academy to the curricula of the staff college; from ship names to practices on board.

If heritage matters to define the soul of a navy, legacy is what ensures that professional standards evolve to remain relevant. The significant battle history of the Imperial navy offered the JMSDF invaluable raw materials over the decades to review assumptions, ideas, and the requirements for success. From a profound appreciation of ASW missions, to the role of sea-lanes defense in Japanese strategy as they came to be understood early in the post-1945 era, the legacy of the Imperial navy ensured that the JMSDF could learn from past mistakes and successes to fashion its own professional standards.

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This last observation leads to the question of experience. In the business of naval warfare, combat is not a frequent occurrence. Navies have to learn through the study of their own past experience and from that of others. The JMSDF has a unique edge in that it has – since its establishment – been a very close partner of the U.S. Navy. This relationship has offered an unmatched opportunity to refine skills, develop capabilities, and advance doctrine. These three features are unique to the JMSDF and together make this organization stand out professionally in this region – and indeed beyond its confines.

U.S. President Donald Trump visited one of Japan’s largest warships last week, the Izumo-class helicopter carrier, JS Kaga. According to Japan’s new defense plans outlined in the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), which set out Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) capability targets over a period of about 10 years, the two Izumo-class flattops will be converted into full-fledged aircraft carriers capable of launching the F-35B stealth fighter. This has led to protests in Japan and among Japan’s regional neighbors like China. Why is the conversion politically controversial? Also, what impact will it have on the service’s doctrine? Will we see a shift away from anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations to long-range Japanese naval air power and long-range strike operations?

The procurement of defense capabilities is more often than not controversial, in Japan as much as anywhere else. In Japan, self-imposed restrictions unfolding from the government’s interpretations of the constitution – especially the content of Article 9 – have contributed to set expectations over what capabilities should and should not be within the reach of the national defense posture. Aircraft carriers are controversial because of their potential use in the projection of power ashore – through strike missions. This relates to the controversy over the Izumo-class conversion. Having said that, the Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) has always made clear that ‘tactical’ carriers – carriers with an operating fixed wing air component – were not outside the remit of the constitution. The conversion falls within these parameters in that a converted Izumo-class would probably work more to provide fleet air defense and air support than in a strike ashore configuration. In the East Asian battle space, land based air defense systems are well developed and advanced, making the notion of an Izumo-carrier configuration ideal for long-range strike less than convincing. The conversion does not suggest a move away from ASW missions, which remain central – together with mine and submarine operations — to Japanese strategy in the Northeast Asian sector.

Given the JMSDF’s relative limited financial resources, do you think it was a mistake to invest money and resources in two large surface combatants that apparently will not suffice for an effective carrier fleet? In addition, what are precisely the operational objectives of the new carrier force in your opinion?

This is perhaps the more controversial aspect of the announcement. The JMSDF has been predominantly configured for ASW operations on the high seas, on the basis of very high readiness levels. Four flotillas made up of a series of smaller task groups – a tactical configuration more flexible and apt to meet the expanded operational tempo – were the centerpieces of the fleet. The helicopter destroyers like the Hyuga and Izumo classes were to be the beating hearts of the flotillas. With the announcement, this doctrinal construct will inevitably change; however details of how the change will be implemented remain limited, with consequent challenges in fully understanding the trade-offs.

However, as the JMSDF widens its set of missions (which now include also the need to retain a viable expeditionary/amphibious capacity) and expands the number of close partners (notably including today the Australian and British navies) this investment may very well present an opportunity. Budgetary constraints are not just a JMSDF problem. All major countries have them, which is why one should not be too fast in judging whether the investment is a mistake. In the Japanese case, the conversion will require robust work in testing new concepts of operations and doctrine to prove the move’s worth. Yet, within this context there is an opportunity for Japan to enhance the impact of these capabilities by investing in stronger and closer partnerships with other medium-sized powers like the U.K. and Australia. What a JMSDF carrier may not do alone, it may very well be able to do it as part of a partnership venture.

The JMSDF remains renowned for its ASW warfare capabilities especially its cutting-edge fleet of diesel-electric submarines crewed by some of the finest submariners in the world. Can you explain how the service achieved this level of excellence and whether it will be able to sustain its outstanding efficacy amid incremental budget increases and shifting spending priorities? 

The JMSDF story is one of commitment to succeed, sheer grit, and – as I pointed out earlier – of proximity with the U.S. Navy. There is a real problem in the literature on post-war Japanese security, which is built upon the notion that Japan was the reluctant, free riding, junior military client of the United States. Such a notion has cast a cloud over the more important point that a limited rearmament was seen by the JMSDF as an opportunity. Since the loan of the first submarine in 1955 (USS Mingo, renamed JDS Kuroshio) to the participation of RIMPAC in the 1980s, the JMSDF treasured the opportunity to work with the U.S. Navy and developed the professionalism to make the most of the relationship. These are solid foundations suggesting that maintaining professionalism and capabilities is not an issue. Whatever the priorities are, one can rest assured the JMSDF will approach the question with the utmost professionalism and an ability to find solutions. The question is not having more money and fewer priorities. The question is having people capable of coming up with relevant answers to the given questions. The JMSDF’s greatest asset is – like for any navy – skilled people.

Can you list some of the known deficiencies and weaknesses of the JMSDF?

This is a difficult question to answer because deficiencies and weaknesses are, to an extent, the result of specific circumstances. In the case of the JMSDF, I would say that manpower – intended as a steady recruitment of personnel – remains a weakness. This is not a problem of reputation, since – generally speaking – especially in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster, the reputation of the armed forces has been consistently positive. In addition, surveys of the Japanese public would suggest that there is a growing understanding of the importance of national defense. Having said so, the Japanese society remains a Western, developed society and as a result, the JMSDF suffers from recruitment problems, which are very similar to those of navies in other parts of the world, especially in Western Europe. Engaging with developing career management systems that are appealing to young generations is a problem that in Japan more than anywhere else should be given considerable attention.

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What do you see as the JMSDF’s biggest challenge in the near- and long-term future? 

Under the Abe administration, the single most significant change in Japanese foreign and security policy has been the reintegration of the peacetime uses of military power within the tools of statecraft. The JMSDF has been both a driving force in this change (from the counter-piracy mission to the extensive portfolio of military engagements) and a recipient of greater political appreciation and attention. This has widened the range of missions it performs around the Japanese archipelago and beyond the confines of Northeast Asia and increased the operational tempo. The biggest challenge in the near term will concern the ability to adapt to these new circumstances in a way that it does not affect performance and capabilities – a well known problem in other navies similarly engaged. In the long term, the biggest challenge is to be able to continue to consolidate the JMSDF’s international profile, and to develop existing partnerships in ways that will enable cooperation to be upgraded to ‘integration.’ In the long-term, a strong JMSDF will have to be a player capable of comfortably operating from Aden and Bahrain to Yokosuka, taking leadership when needed – in constabulary, humanitarian, and military missions. This remains a politically controversial aspect and something that will require continued political leadership to become reality.

While the JMSDF’s budget has seen modest but steady increases each year, the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) has proportionally seen significant financial boosts in recent years. Is this because JCG rather than the JMSDF is usually taking the lead in deterring Chinese so-called gray zone coercion attempts in the East China Sea? What are the current naval power dynamics in the East China Sea?

The JCG is Japan’s primary law-enforcement agency. As such, it has a frontline role in managing constabulary matters, such as the monitoring of intrusions as well as the conduct of illegal activities within Japanese territorial waters. The events taking place in the East China Sea since 2012 have highlighted the need for a greater – numerically speaking – presence in the water of the JCG. Interestingly, whereas the Chinese Coast Guard is upgrading capabilities by expanding numbers and becoming more ‘militarized,’ the JCG has upgraded capabilities by increasing numbers and enhancing its law-enforcement capabilities. This suggests intent to keep the management of territorial issues as a law-enforcement matter, if possible at all. However, the JMSDF – and the JSDF in general – are also part of the Japanese response to security challenges to offshore islands, again suggesting that if matters were to be escalated in terms of capabilities deployed, the Japanese would be ready to bring in military power adequate to the task. This is happening on the background of considerably improving bilateral ties between China and Japan, with new maritime and air communication mechanisms agreed – and hopes for enhanced crisis management capabilities available. Whether such mechanisms will be fully implemented remains to be seen and this is the real indicator of actual progress in the dynamics at sea.

 The JSDF remains prone to interservice rivalry and still suffers from a lack of interservice cooperation. What is the relation of the JMDF with the other two services, the Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) and Air Self Defense Force (ASDF)? Who is currently winning the bureaucratic battle? Has the rivalry impacted operational effectiveness? For example, the GSDF stoop up a new amphibious assault brigade for the defense of Japanese islands flanking the East China Sea, but there have been reports that the two services have a hard time cooperating.

Since the mid-2000s, the Japanese have been implementing a number of structural reforms, by upgrading the status of the Joint Staff Office and the Ministry of Defense, and by introducing new policy-making and decision-taking capabilities like the National Security Council. Similarly, the three services have undergone significant changes – both internally and in terms of operational conduct. These are complex changes that happened mostly at the same time, while the operational tempo was considerably expanding too. Given the circumstances, I am not sure I would agree that interservice rivalry has generated a bureaucratic battle that is affecting operational effectiveness. Such battles exist in most democratic countries, and one can only assess how the Japanese fare in relation to the missions they are supposed to perform rather than some artificial standard. Generally speaking, the standing up of the amphibious regiment is a good example of this. Early moves to establish it were favored by senior leadership in the JMSDF and JGSDF that wanted it to happen. And that is exactly what happened. Reporting from exercises with the U.S. Navy and USMC would suggest that the Japanese were able to make excellent progress in relatively little time. Today, leadership in the JMSDF and JGSDF has also other priorities and this might affect how the amphibious component continues to evolve. But this makes the JSDF human, rather than ineffective.