A Modest Proposal for Defending Japan’s Remote Islands

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A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldier, left, trains with U.S. Marines on Guam in September 2012

Cooler heads have prevailed so far in the standoff between Japan and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea. But it might be time for Japan to put a few defenses there in case warmer heads prevail the next time.

Japan has talked for years about stationing troops or equipment on its far-flung Nansei Islands, which stretch some 700 miles (1,120 km) southward from the home islands, and developing a modest capability to conduct amphibious warfare. But so far, it’s amounted to little more than vague plans and slogans.

If Chinese warships want to slip troops ashore on one of the hundreds of remote islands that Japan owns or claims in the region, there’s little to stop them. And to pry them off would require the help of U.S. Marines — with potentially dire consequences for U.S.-China relations, not to mention the security of the entire region.

There’s no indication, of course, that China actually plans to seize Japanese territory. Japan itself is officially pacifist and has renounced the use of force in settling international disputes. That’s all fine and good. But if Japan wants a little more say in defending its territory, it could do so with a few modest steps.

Here’s where to start:

1. Put troops, ships and planes in the region and keep them there. The exact mix and number can be argued all day, but the point is to have a force that is substantial enough to dissuade anyone who might be tempted to look for a quick and easy military option. A battalion or so of ground troops, a squadron of patrol planes and a few small or medium-size warships, based in the southernmost islands near Taiwan, would probably suffice. Right now Japan has nothing south of Okinawa, and very little even there. Might as well post a “Come on in” sign.

2. Establish a joint command that will compel Japan’s self-defense forces to work together. Japan has an excellent navy, a good air force and a decent army. But they suffer the usual interservice rivalries and are rarely required to operate as a joint force. To protect a vast area like the Nansei Islands, they’ll need to work hand in glove, with a single chain of command, well-established plans and procedures, and each with a thorough understanding of how its counterparts operate. Establishing a Joint Task Force Nansei Islands would put everyone on the same page and have the benefit of attracting some of the most energetic and capable officers from each service — after all, a real-world mission sure beats a desk in Honshu.

3. Conduct frequent training exercises and learn from the Marines, since they know how to do these things. Combat operations are inherently dangerous, complicated and chaotic, and adding an ocean increases the problems exponentially. Getting soldiers, equipment and supplies off a ship quickly, in rough seas, over rocks and coral reefs, day or night, with aircraft overhead, hostile forces all around and water everywhere is something that must be learned and practiced. The Marines have been doing it for 70 years, and even they, in candid moments, will tell you they still don’t know it all.

4. Invite the Chinese to watch, no matter how much this goes against the grain. Deterrence does no good if the other guy doesn’t know what you are capable of. And treat them nicely — there are a lot of them and they live very close by.

The Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) has been battling flat budgets for a decade, but fortunately this won’t cost as much as one might think. JSDF already has about 80% of the equipment it needs to develop a workable amphibious warfare capability, according to the head of the Marines’ liaison office with the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), Grant Newsham. While specialized hardware like the Marine’s Wasp-class amphibious assault ships would be ideal, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has three Osumi-class transport ships that could be readily adapted to carry ground troops, as well as helicopters and amphibious assault vehicles. That’s enough to move substantial troops and equipment anywhere in the Nansei Islands on short notice.

The Nansei Island chain / Wiki Commons

Some compromises are inevitable. The GSDF helicopters don’t have foldable blades and therefore will be cumbersome to operate aboard ship; radios and electronic gear will have to be weatherized to withstand the humidity and salt air at sea. But the JSDF can make do.

None of these ideas are particularly new. The GSDF has been taking part in annual amphibious warfare exercises with Marines in California since 2007, and a GSDF platoon trained with a Marine expeditionary unit off Guam in August and September of this year. Japan’s 2013 defense budget provides money to buy four amphibious assault ships and for planning a surveillance garrison on Yonaguni Island (where a flotilla of Chinese warships was spotted earlier this month), at the far end of the Nansei chain. Many ideas listed here are included in a memo circulated between U.S. and Japanese defense planners by Newsham last year.

One hopes this is all academic. China believes it has a legitimate claim over the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku in Japan), where it has been sparring with Japan on and off for nearly two years. But it’s hard to see where China could realistically benefit from occupying those islands, or any others that inarguably belong to Japan. And the 15,000 Marines on Okinawa and powerful U.S. 7th Fleet at Yokosuka have got to be a deterrent, regardless of how many Japanese forces are, or are not, in the region.

Still, miscalculations happen, don’t they?

A few years ago, a group of foreign military officers visited a GSDF unit in Kyushu that was responsible for protecting the southern region of Japan. The delegation quickly discovered that the unit had no plans, procedures or doctrine for operating in the Nansei Islands and had no means of getting there. A briefing officer candidly admitted that in an emergency, his first step would be to call the maritime or air self-defense forces and ask if they had any ships or planes available.

With a few modest steps now, a phone call like that might never have to be made.