What a change in threat perception can do: for years, Japan’s strategic establishment discussed the need to readjust the nation’s military posture to meet a changing external security environment, with nothing much coming from it. Enter China, and Japan has found a new resolve. Beijing is steadily building up its missile arsenal capable of hitting targets in Japan, including US bases. The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from Tokyo’s view demonstrates a Chinese ‘probing’ strategy aimed at testing Japanese and American resolve in territorial conflicts. Recent claims by Chinese quasi-officials that even Japan’s Ryukyu Islands historically belonged to the Middle Kingdom have only exacerbated Tokyo’s concerns.
While Japan still heavily relies on US protection, it has started to shift its military posture towards what it calls a ‘Dynamic Defense Force’. One goal is to reorient the Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) armoured forces, still largely based in the country’s north and geared towards resisting a ground invasion, towards operations in the southwest to help defend the islands against Chinese maritime assertiveness. While Japan has debated the development of an amphibious capability for over a decade, there are now signs of progress. Decision-makers in Tokyo have realised that the current GSDF contingent based on Yonaguni Island would be insufficient against a determined Chinese operation.
Japan probably won’t stand up a separate marine corps. But it’s enhancing both skills and hardware for amphibious warfare. The Western Infantry Regiment will form the core of the amphibious force. New proposals of the LDP administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a more active Japanese defence posture include a plan to equip the regiment with advanced capabilities. These will include up to four dozen amphibious AAV-7A1S landing vehicles and V-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft, which are also operated by the US Marines. The Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) had already announced the acquisition of an additional, highly capable 9,000-ton Osumi-class amphibious assault ship, bringing the total number up to four. It’s also taken two new 19,000-ton Hyuga-class helicopter-carrying destroyers into service and is pursuing plans to build two new 27,000-ton helicopter carriers. The four ships will form the core of four helicopter/destroyer groups in defence of Japanese islands in the East China Sea. As well, Japan has taken steps to increase its still limited airlift capability.
Moreover, the GSDF and MSDF are taking cooperation with the US Marines to a new level. In April, Japan announced that it would send three of its largest and most modern warships, 250 ground troops and combat helicopters to participate in the amphibious exercise Dawn Blitz 2013 off the coast of Southern California later this month, alongside the US, Canada and New Zealand (!). For the first time since 1945, Japanese ground forces will operate from Japanese warships far from home. While in the past Japanese troops flew from Japan to the US they’ll now board a Hyuga-class and an Osumi-class ship and sail across the Pacific, escorted by a missile-guided destroyer. This will allow them to live, train, and fight from warships over extended periods of time and great ocean distances. It will also increase cooperation between the GSDF and the MSDF which is still underdeveloped.
The development of a more capable, if still limited, amphibious force sends a message to both the US and to China. It signals to Washington that Tokyo is prepared to invest more in forces and equipment which can be used in a coalition context but also for independent operations. In this context, it should be noted that Abe’s defence policy proposal apparently also recommends strengthening land- and sea-based cruise and ballistic missile defence capabilities against Chinese missiles. Protecting US and Japanese bases against initial Chinese attacks is key to maintaining the credibility of the allied deterrent. Tokyo’s amphibious capability is also meant to demonstrate to Beijing a resolve to defend its Southwestern Islands, independently or as part of a US operation.
In the future, Japan could also use its amphibious capability as a tool for defence diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific. In Southeast Asia, some nations, also with China in mind, are looking to bolster their amphibious capabilities. And they’re more welcoming of an increased Japanese role in regional security in the context of ‘hedging’ strategies. For example, Japan is already helping train the Philippine Coast Guard and it’s not unthinkable to extend defence cooperation to include amphibious operations. Japan and India also just announced the possibility of joint production, operation and training on Japan’s US-2 amphibious aircraft. Finally, amphibious warfare could be an area for future Australia–Japan defence cooperation, in addition to areas suggested by my ASPI colleagues in their new report. With the arrival of the two LHDs, the ADF is in the midst of developing its own amphibious capability. Working with Japan in this area makes perfect sense, especially as both countries could utilise the framework of the Australia–US–Japan defence cooperation to secure US Marines engagement.
Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.