The Strategist

Japan’s expeditionary force is growing… But is Japan prepared for what’s coming?

12/14/2015 - 08:12

The Japanese Navy is expanding and becoming more modern at an extremely fast pace. Japan is acquiring new materials and training its troops like never before. The dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea is one of the main motivations for this renewal. Is Japan fully prepared?

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Matthew A. Ebarb/Released)
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Matthew A. Ebarb/Released)
Tensions are rising in the South China Sea, as China is reclaiming islands “at a rapid pace,’ according to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. China has already built artificial islands and facilities in the disputed areas, provoking other claimants, including the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. In the past months and years Japan has been preparing its marine forces to face possible confrontations around these disputes.
On March 25th this year, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) commissioned the JS Izumo (DDH-183), a helicopter destroyer, which principal task will be anti-submarine warfare and command and control operations to protect the Japanese territories in the East China Sea. The 248 meters long career is the largest surface combatant in the Japanese fleet and is designed to accommodate up to 14 helicopters, five of which can simultaneously take off and land given the large flight deck. The JS Izumo is a major acquisition that can be bad news for Chinese subs, considering its impressive size and capabilities. ‘This heightens our ability to deal with Chinese submarines that have become more difficult to detect,’ (2) stated a Japanese official from the JMSDF during the ceremony.
The JS Izumo can also be used for humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) operations. Japanese authorities have been looking to invest in ships that can offer this dual operability, as Japan has recently been in desperate need of carriers of immediate assistance to affected populations in case of disasters.
Japan’s defense is therefore building up; the Minister of Defense has budgeted ¥23.97 trillion (US $199.5 billion) for the next five years to fund the military expansion and create ‘a more flexible dynamic Joint Defense Force’ ‘Japan’s focus has merged from aiming at deterring a Soviet invasion from the north to defending its southeastern island chain. Therefore, the main battle tank fleet should be cut from 740 to 300, and be replaced by the fleet with lighter maneuver combat vehicles.
Adding amphibious landing vehicles is also a priority for Japan (52 AAV-7), as well as new aircrafts and helicopters. Full amphibious capabilities is something still being developed in Japanese marine forces. Having a full amphibious power has become essential for Japan in order to defend its islands and it can also be a great addition to disaster relief potentials.
"In the medium term [up until 2020] I think we will see some focus on enhancing Japan's amphibious capabilities. Japan has already made the first institutional moves to setting up a Japanese 'marines' in the form of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, and is acquiring/looking to acquire Ospreys and AAVs," said Corey Wallace, a Japan security policy expert at New Zealand's University of Auckland (1).
Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies added that Japan is now in need of more amphibious ships, stating ‘Japan needs to invest more in ship-to-shore connectors beyond the [air-cushioned landing craft] and the old-model AAVs currently being procured from the United States." The offer for amphibious capable ships has improved these past years especially when looking for dual operability; military and assistance use.
A new generation of fast landing craft that can be used for both military, humanitarian and civilian logistics operations was recently chosen by the French Navy for its abilities to accomplish amphibious operations in rough seas and shallow waters. The L-Cat is actually a landing catamaran, capable of high speeds of over 25 knots, depending on its load. Its draft is only of 1.7m (2.35 meters when loaded), which allows the craft made by French CNIM to dock in many different configurations.
Amphibious ships are likely to be the last component to be acquired by the JMSDF, as Japan’s Prime Minister has expressed its worries over increasing pressure from Chinese fleet being positioned across the Japan Sea and the South China Sea. On the sidelines of the G-7 PM, Shinzo Abe expressed his inquietude to French President Francois Hollande and other allies from of the G-7. Abe also told Hollande the need for Japan to open a dialogue with Russian leaders to settle the long running sovereignty dispute over four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido. France and Japan should work together on this matter, as well as on climate change related issues in preparation of the COP21 conference, which will be hosted in Paris at the end of the year (3).
More than ever, Japan is proving its military strength in the region. Being able to reply in a quick and efficient manner to Chinese claims of small pieces of land in the middle of the Sea, is crucial for Japan’s future and it should affect China’s long-term plans. If an open conflict was to happen in the region, Japan’s new expeditionary force, especially its amphibious power, will be determinant in the future of the islands of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.
(1) Amphibious focus, Joint Strategy Drive Japan, Defense News, Paul Kallender-Umezu, June 9th 2015
(2) Japan’s new helicopter carrier: Bad news for Chinese Subs?, The Diplomat, Franz-Stefan Gady, March 28th 2015.
(3) Japan, France wary of Beijing’s reclamation binge in South China Sea, Japan Times, June 7th 2015