TOKYO – China’s airwaves and blogosphere are full of armchair generals predicting swift and righteous victory over Japan if fighting breaks out in the East China Sea. Overheated nonsense, mostly. Everybody thinks their side will win quick and easy before a war starts, but it rarely works out that way.
But at least one senior commander offers a view that – while not necessarily right or wrong – sheds light on how the People’s Liberation Army might view a potential conflict, and what it thinks of Japan’s armed forces.
“The battle to take over the Diaoyu Islands would not be a conventional operation. For either party involved in the war, it would be very difficult to employ their full military capabilities, because there would be no time for them to fully unfold in the fight. The real fight would be very short. It is very possible the war would end in a couple of days or even in a few hours,” said PLA Navy Rear Admiral Yin Zhou, a former director of the Navy Institute of Strategic Studies, in a recent primetime special on Beijing TV.
Japan and China have been squabbling over a group of tiny, uninhabited islands that the former calls Senkaku, and the latter, Diaoyu.
“The keys to winning the war are quick actions, and good planning,” says Zhou, a frequent commentator on military issues. “First, the troops that go into the battle must be well-trained, elite troops. Second, the troops must have precision strike capabilities. Once surface targets or air targets are chosen, the troops must be able to hit those targets immediately and precisely. Good planning also refers to accurately grasping the enemy’s situation, especially its operational (troop and ship) dispositions. We have to be very clear which disposition is the key and then plan our operations accordingly.”
(Note: The translation here was provided by a member of the Western defense community in Beijing and has been edited to make it easier to read — every attempt has been made to stay faithful to the original Mandarin.)
Though officially pacifist, Japan has a powerful navy and air force. But its ground forces are still struggling to shed tank-heavy, Cold War roots and adopt a more mobile, flexible lineup. Two units that Zhou thinks could be involved in a Senkaku/Diaoyu conflict are the Western Army Infantry Regiment, which has primary responsibility for defending Japan’s southern island chain, and the First Airborne Brigade, a parachute unit that is part of Japan’ rapid-reaction force.
— “The First Airborne Brigade so far has about 2,000 soldiers. However, it does not have a capacity to deliver 2,000 people. It is only capable of delivering a couple of sections. Moreover, it does not have the capacity to deliver heavy equipment – only soldiers and light equipment. So, when the paratroopers land on the ground, their combat powers are very weak, and it is easy to surround and annihilate them. Without the support of heavy weapons, casualties would be huge.”
— “The Western Army Infantry Regiment also has some problems with its training. The soldiers are trained as a special operations force. They specialize in infiltrating coastlines where basic defenses are weak, making stealthy landings and sneaking in deep and conducting destructive attacks. As for a real, conventional amphibious capability, they don’t have one.”
I don’t necessarily agree with Zhou’s analysis. The biggest island in the Senkaku/Diaoyu group is barely big enough to hold an infantry platoon, so it’s unlikely the Japanese would be dropping large numbers of paratroopers there (and let’s not contemplate what the 18,000 Marines on nearby Okinawa would be doing all this time).
He’s right about the Western Army Infantry Regiment, though: it has no amphibious warfare capability. Which is why several hundred members of that unit have been in California the past month — training with Marines.