Ready or Not, Japan to Ease Rules on Foreign Intervention

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Japan Ministry of Defense

Members of the Japan Ground Self Defense Force practice infantry tactics at a base in Japan.

TOKYO – Japanese leaders are preparing to ease a decades-long prohibition against the use of combat troops overseas. That’s one result of last week’s terrorist raid in Algeria, in which at least nine Japanese citizens were killed.

But it will take much more than a change in legal statutes before Japanese self-defense forces – capable though they may be – are ready to intervene in a terrorist or military incident far from home.

“The fundamental ability of Japanese troops is good. But their skills are not necessarily the best for these kinds of missions,” says Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University, who has studied the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF).

About 4,500 soldiers are assigned to the JSDF’s Central Readiness Force (CRF), which has primary responsibility for responding to terrorist attacks or military emergencies. The unit includes paratroopers, Rangers and some 300 Special Forces soldiers. The latter receive training from the U.S. Army’s elite Green Berets and Delta Force commandos.

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Though well-trained and well-equipped, the CRF troops are geared primarily for fighting a conventional war, on Japanese home soil, says Mulloy. That’s far different from, say, rescuing hostages in the Algerian desert or defending a compound in downtown Mogadishu.

“One of the things that politicians don’t understand — and many military leaders, as well — is the extraordinary complexity of any hostage-type situation, and the constrained, inter-agency environment in which (Japanese) forces would be required to operate. It requires different skills and a very different mind set,” says Mulloy, a former British Army officer who has worked with special forces units from several countries.

The raid at the In Amenas gas plant, one of the worst terrorist attacks in years, came as a shock in Japan, which even today remains largely insulated from such incidents. Nine Japanese workers were executed by terrorists, or killed during a rescue attempt by Algerian forces; one is still listed as missing. Seven others survived. Altogether, 38 workers from nine countries were killed.

Japan’s newly elected government was criticized for not doing enough to protect its citizens, monitor their condition or bring the victims and survivors home quickly.

But the criticism seems hardly fair. Japan’s pacifist Constitution and strict Self Defense Forces Law severely limit what JSDF troops are allowed to do overseas. The CRF, for example, is tasked with evacuating Japanese citizens in natural disasters, armed conflicts or other emergencies; but they may do so only by air or sea – not by land – and only if there is no risk that the troops themselves could be drawn into conflict.  Should trouble arise, the troops may use weapons only in self-defense. Mount an armed rescue of Japanese citizens? Out of the question.

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The conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which returned to power in a landslide vote last month, plans to introduce a bill in the national Diet as early as Monday that would ease some of those restrictions. It seems likely to pass. For the first time since World War II, Japanese ground troops would be authorized to use force to protect the safety and well-being of Japanese citizens overseas.

Those changes are overdue, says Tetsuo Kotani, a national security specialist with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, in Tokyo.

“A nation’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens. So we have to increase our capability to do that. We have to expect that similar cases (to the Algeria attack) can happen at any time. If the law is changed, (troops) could be dispatched wherever they are needed,” says Kotani.

Though Japanese troops have taken part in U.N. peacekeeping missions since the mid-1990s, they too have been largely restricted from using force.  Japan withdrew its contingent from the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights last month lest they come under fire from the growing unrest in neighboring Syria.

Though Japan’s supposed swing to the right has been largely overstated, opinion polls show that public acceptance of the military has increased in recent years. That’s due in large part to increasing tensions with China and the JSDF’s swift response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. More than 100,000 troops deployed to search for victims and aid survivors, and CRF helicopters famously – if futilely – battled the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, dowsing the crippled power plant with buckets of seawater.

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Along with changing the Self Defense Force Law, conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to revise or reinterpret the Constitution to make it easier to use the JSDF in other contingencies. He has also proposed a modest increase in defense spending – 2.6 percent – for next year.

Mulloy says it wouldn’t cost much to begin training the JSDF for rescue missions overseas, but it would require a significant change in mindset. Troops would have to be trained for fluency in a variety of languages – English and Arabic are just a start – and learn to operate with foreign militaries, intelligence services and police forces.

“You don’t actually need a huge increase in budget or size,” Mulloy says. “But what you need is a concentration of specialists, and to train very intensely in a variety of very specific scenarios. If you are doing an extraction in an urban area, how do you get your people in and out of a heavily populated area with traffic jams? What if you have casualties? Do you use civilian vehicles or military vehicles?  What’s the legal situation? If you are dealing with a desert scenario like Algeria, it’s something very different. How do you deal with the local military? Where is the nearest airport? Can you get helicopters in?  If you take your own helicopters into a desert environment, are they equipped with dust filters? It’s all very simple stuff, but you have to understand what questions you have to ask even before you start.”