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Japan Prepares for an Island War

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Tokyo) — Japan is taking a major step in its military strategy, conducting a large-scale amphibious drill designed to put on display its ability to conquer an island. This follows Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s repeated references to the Falklands in his speeches, a polite and indirect, yet unequivocal way, of warning China that an “invasion” of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands would be met with an amphibious counterstrike.

On the political and diplomatic side the drills are designed to show that Tokyo does not stand alone should that scenario materialize. Japan has already succeeded in inducing the United States to acknowledge that the bilateral security treaty covers the Japan-administered Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands, following the ambiguity and conflicting public statements of the past.

The next step is to show that Japanese and US forces are interoperable and could work together in such a campaign, all the while developing Japan’s own amphibious capabilities.

However, there is still the nagging question of whether a successful, bloodless landing by Chinese forces on these disputed islands could prompt some voices in the United States to then claim that the islands are no longer under Tokyo’s effective control and therefore outside the scope of an automatic military response in support of Japan.

While it is far from clear whether or not matters would develop in that way, Japan is deploying, as part of the drills, anti-ship missiles with which to it could close some sea passages to Chinese shipping.

The creation of specialized units and facilities in this field is one aspect of Japan’s defense reorientation following the end of the Cold War and the growing might of the Chinese Navy. The idea is to develop a capability to deploy military forces to contested islands in the event of a major crisis, and to retake them if necessary.

With that perceived need in view, Tokyo decided to develop a specialized force, mentored by the US Navy and Marine Corps. The force will comprise contingents from the Ground, Air, and Maritime Self-Defense Forces, and will include different units covering a range of capabilities, from infantry to maritime transportation, including air support. This specialized force is seen as necessary not only because some of Japan’s islands are from existing military facilities, but also from civilian infrastructure able to support operations.

Until 2012, Japan considered marines to be offensive in nature and thus falling outside the permissible scope of Article Nine. But, as in many other cases, the Constitution has been “reinterpreted” in order to allow marine units to be created and deployed.

The unit selected to serve as the core, or seed, of this amphibious capability was the Western Army Infantry Regiment (WAIR), based in Nagasaki. This location facilitates the quick embarkation on Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) ships at Sasebo or on Ospreys from nearby air bases at Nyutabaru and Tsuiki. From this core, Japanese amphibious capabilities are expected to expand.

Despite its name, the WAIR is, broadly speaking, of battalion size. It is made up of at least three infantry companies. Its table of equipment is that of a light infantry unit, with weapons no heavier than 84mm Carl Gustav recoil-less rifles and French MO-120-RT 120mm towed mortars. Tokyo announced recently that it would be buying up to six AAV-7A1 amphibious assault vehicles. Traditionally, the WAIR’s only vehicles were light trucks.

Concerning air support, up to now the WAIR has not had at its disposal any dedicated, specialized, and collocated air unit. Traditionally, it has relied on helicopters from the 1st Aviation Brigade, with its headquarters near Tokyo. For example, during the June 2013 Dawn Blitz drills, which took place in Southern California, this brigade provided AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook helicopters. Now, Tokyo is pondering the possibility of purchasing organic air transport for its marines, in the shape of up to 20 Osprey aircraft. This may allow the WAIR to quickly move to the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands in the event of a crisis.

The Ospreys remain, however, deeply controversial in Japan due to past accidents associated with this aircraft.

With regard to the naval aspects, Japan has long enjoyed a considerable capability when it comes to amphibious ships. The MSDF’s three Osumi-class vessels are considered to be Landing Ship, Tanks (LSTs) and feature full-length flight decks and a well deck. Each can transport almost a battalion of infantry, plus tanks and other vehicles. They can carry two American-built Landing Craft Air Cushions (LCAC), and Japan in fact has six of them.

Tokyo also has a dozen medium-sized landing crafts, each able to transport around 30 tons of equipment or up to 80 marines from ship to shore.

To the Osumi-class we must add the Hyuga-class, officially described as “helicopter destroyers” but similar in look and capabilities to light carriers. Each can carry up to 16 helicopters, and it probably would not be too difficult to convert them to operate vertical take-off and landing planes like the F-35B which the United Kingdom is buying for its Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, currently under construction.

Although media reports do not usually refer to this, the question remains whether or not the budding defense cooperation between London and Tokyo may include at some point future assistance in developing such a capability.

Similar to the French Mistral-class and American Iwo Jima-class in their versatility, the Hyuga-class, of which a third vessel is now under construction, provides a very strong addition to Japan’s amphibious capabilities.

Writing for the Asahi Shinbun on the occasion of the launch in August 2013 of the second ship in the class, the Izumo, Alessio Patalano of King’s College London, one of the top experts on Japanese naval affairs, stressed that design had multiplied “the Izumo’s operational flexibility and versatility so that it can be used in the defense of offshore islands, to rescue nationals overseas and as a command ship in expeditionary or relief missions.” He added, “In relief operations after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, for example, the helicopter destroyer Hyuga was deployed precisely in that type of function.”

We can thus see how, out of the three pillars of Tokyo’s amphibious forces, the maritime one is probably the strongest at present. The marine component is currently under development, and the major question is about the air component in light of the politically controversial nature of Osprey aircraft.

Concerning US assistance in this process, Washington may be interested not only in helping Tokyo reinforce its military capabilities to complement its own “pivot to the Pacific” (which rests in no small measure on a strengthening of the naval capabilities of key allies such as the Philippines and Japan), but also in opening the door to a Japanese contribution to US-led amphibious operations.

This was stressed by Kyle Mizokami in his recent piece on “Japan’s Amphibious Buildup” for the United States Naval Institute News. Mizokami wrote, “Under the tutelage of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, Japan is slowly but surely building up a credible, flexible amphibious force capable of responding to national emergencies. Highly trained with a high level of mobility, it could eventually become the equal of both. The force will not only be highly useful in Japan’s territorial disputes, it will likely be a excellent partner for their American counterparts in joint operations.”

Writing recently in the Asahi Shinbun, Koji Sonoda explained that, according to Japanese Defense Ministry sources, “The creation of a Japanese version of U.S. Marines will be included in the National Defense Program Guidelines to be compiled in December.” He added the amphibious force would be set up as early as the fiscal year 2015 and that the target size of the force would be about 3,000 personnel.

The Defense Ministry has announced a large-scale military exercise designed to bolster the country’s ability to protect its remote islands. AFP quoted a ministry official who explained that the war games would feature destroyers, fighter jets, and 34,000 troops, and would involve live-firing. The “air-sea-land drill” will be held from November 1 to 18 and will comprise “amphibious landings on the uninhabited atoll of Okidaitojima,” 400 kilometer southeast of Okinawa island.

In a statement, the SDF Joint Staff said that the drill was aimed at “maintaining and improving the joint operational abilities of the Self-Defense Forces in armed-attack situations.” They explained that it would feature “a series of actions in defending islands” including combined landing operations.

According to the Japanese media and Stratfor, the SDF is also considering the deployment of short-range anti-ship missiles on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture, though no live-fire exercises are planned there for the time being.

The significance of deploying anti-ship missiles to Ishigaki and perhaps Miyakojima has been stressed by Straftor, which believes that they would effectively “put the entire passage between Okinawa-jima and Miyako-jima under the coverage of Japanese land-based surface-to-ship missiles.” Their commentary notes that while Tokyo denies aiming this deployment at anyone in particular, “the Chinese navy is increasingly using the same passage through the first island chain and into the Pacific” and as a result “the deployment is sure to send a strong message to Beijing.” Stratfor concludes that Japan’s drills and anti-ship missile deployments “show that, despite some Chinese military claims of having ‘dismembered’ the first island chain as an obstacle” that transiting it “in peacetime is entirely different from attempting the same feat during a conflict with Japan.”

The lethal potential of shore-based anti-ship missiles became clear in the closing stages of the 1982 Falklands War when Argentinian forces launched an improvised Exocet missile against the Royal Navy’s HMS Glamorgan, damaging it extensively and taking it out of action.

The announcement of the drills went hand-in-hand with a renewed exercise in public diplomacy. The government released some videos, and announcing the coming issuance of additional videos, all of which aimed to defend Tokyo’s position in the (still unacknowledged) island disputes with the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea.

AFP explained, “In its latest volley, the foreign ministry has produced two 90-second videos stating its case for ownership of the two disputed island groups and posted them on its YouTube site.” It added that both clips were in Japanese and that they would be followed by versions in other languages “including Chinese and Korean.” AFP quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying, “We are also preparing three other short movies on the Senkaku islands and one on the issue of Takeshima.” (The latter refers to islets under South Korean control which Seoul calls Dokdo.) The Foreign Ministry has earmarked about US$1.2 million in the current fiscal year to produce such films. They justify the use of public money in this way by explaining, “It is important that the international community obtain correct understanding over situations surrounding Japan including territories.”

Both Beijing and Seoul have reacted strongly to this move. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying insisted, once more, that the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands belong to Beijing, adding, “Whatever propaganda tools Japan employs to support its illegal claim, it will not change the fact that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China.” Hua continued, “We strongly urge the Japanese side to correct its attitude, stop all provocative words and actions, and make concrete efforts for the proper management and resolution of the question of the Diaoyu Islands.”

For its part, Seoul lodged a formal diplomatic protest over the offending YouTube video, summoning a senior Japanese embassy official on October 26.

The drills announced by Tokyo are significant, not just due to the large number of personnel involved, but above all because they signal a clear determination to show the world, both allies and perceived foes, that Japan is a major naval power, and one that is developing a serious amphibious capability and the ability to close off key naval passages in a time of conflict.

There is little doubt that the Japanese military is professional and skilled, and that they can easily acquire new capabilities. However, what is equally important for Tokyo is to integrate its national objectives such as the defense of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands with the defense of wider interests such as freedom of navigation, the rule of law, and the peaceful solution to territorial disputes.

Since becoming prime minister for a second time, Shinzo Abe has devoted much time and effort to this project. Indeed, it has become a constant reference in his speeches. Abe appears to see the United Kingdom as a sort of model in this respect, perhaps desiring that his country develop as a US ally in a similar manner. This recalls the era of about a century ago when Japan was sometimes described as the “Britain of the Far East,” but with somewhat different connotations then as compared with today.

It remains Shinzo Abe’s challenge to portray Japan’s military reemergence as a force for good in the region, somehow leaving behind the negative legacy of the 1930s and early 1940s. The United States and some of its allies seem willing to entertain this vision, but there is as yet no indication that Japan’s Asian neighbors share that particular disposition even in the slightest.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona, and Guest Professor at Nagoya University.