Japanese Invasion Fleet Heads For California — Then Where?

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JS Hyuga, rear, and JS Kurama sail in formation in Sagami Bay, Japan, last year. For the first time in the post-war era, Japanese ground troops will operate from Japanese warships far from home.

TOKYO – An unprecedented force of ships, troops and aircraft that Japan will send to southern California for amphibious warfare exercises next month represents only the first step in what leaders hope will be a transformation of its ground forces and national-defense strategy.

Instead of sticking to bases on their home islands, Japanese troops will be trained and equipped to seize islands and control territory across vast stretches of ocean.

And for this not entirely reassuring scenario, we can thank the growing military strength and assertiveness of China.

Japan announced plans this week to send three of its largest and most modern warships, along with 250 ground troops and combat helicopters, to take part in amphibious war games with U.S. Marines in and around Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Troops will spend several weeks learning to assault beaches, conduct helicopter and small-boat raids, work with pre-positioned supply ships and operate with U.S. and other multi-national forces.  Troops and ships from Canada and New Zealand also will take part in the exercise, dubbed Dawn Blitz 2013.

Although Japanese ground troops have trained with Marines for a number of years, Dawn Blitz is by far the largest and most ambitious effort to date.

For the first time in the post-war era, Japanese ground troops will operate from Japanese warships far from home. Troops from the Western Army Infantry Regiment – which is being transformed into something resembling the U.S. Marine Corps – will board the JS Hyuga and JS Shimokita in Japan and sail across the Pacific to California. Others will join them during an expected stop at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A third ship, a guided-missile destroyer, will provide escort.

Japanese troops who have trained with Marines in California in the past have flown directly from Japan, operating for short periods from U.S. Navy ships just offshore. Learning how to live, train and fight from warships over extended periods of time and great stretches of ocean – and learning how to adapt those ships to accommodate hundreds of ground troops and their weapons and equipment — will be a key goal of the exercise.

The Hyuga is the first of a new class of large, flat-deck helicopter carriers. It is designed primarily for anti-submarine warfare but can be adapted for other missions, like carrying troops or – potentially – short-takeoff and vertical–landing fighter planes like the new F-35. The Shimokita is a large transport with a submergible well deck that can accommodate air-cushioned landing craft.

“The Japanese have about 80% of the hardware they need to put together an amphibious capability,” says Colonel Grant Newsham, U.S. Marine liaison officer with the Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF), in Tokyo. “Historically, the Japanese army and navy have not really cooperated well, and that continues up to this day. Developing their ability to do joint operations is something they need to work on.”

Although no Japanese fighter planes will take part in Dawn Blitz, five officers from the Japan Air Self Defense Force will join the team. It’s one of the few occasions in which troops from all three of Japan’s armed services have taken part in a single exercise.

The Japanese have debated whether to develop amphibious warfare capability for more than a decade. Thousands of small islands are scattered across Japan’s southwest island chain, with only a small garrison of ground troops on Okinawa (also home to about 18,000 U.S. Marines). The island chain stretches some 700 miles from the Japanese mainland. Chinese warships regularly transit the area on their way to the western Pacific.

A sense of urgency arrived in 2010, when China began aggressively pressing its claim on a small group of Japanese-administered islands near Taiwan. Japanese leaders quickly realized that if the Chinese put troops ashore, they had darned little to pry them off.

Although Japan has highly capable ground forces, most are geared for local-area defense of the main islands. A “dynamic defense” strategy introduced in 2010 is slowly drawing down the GSDF’s huge armored forces on northernmost Hokkaido – originally intended to defend against invasion by the Soviet Union. But re-orienting forces southward has been slow.

“The threats to Japan today are maritime in nature. You are not going to get a great ground invasion like you were expecting during the Cold War,’” says Jeffrey Hornung, an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

The reform effort gained speed with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. Scores of Japanese warships arrived offshore while floodwaters were still receding. But unlike the Marines, who also arrived quickly, the Japanese had few landing craft to shuttle supplies and rescue workers ashore or to pluck victims from the wreckage.

“Amphibious capability is not just about taking islands,” says Newsham. “If they’d have had amphibious capability and applied it right away when the tsunami hit, I believe they could have saved three or four thousand lives in the first couple days. It was very unfortunate, but it did point out that missing capability.”

Japanese participation in Dawn Blitz was fast-tracked when conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December. Chinese patrol ships have entered territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands some 40 times since last autumn. Eight vessels from China’s Maritime Surveillance agency sailed inside the 12-mile limit around the islands earlier this week in the boldest show of force yet.

The Ministry of Defense has order four armored assault vehicles like those used by the Marines, but they won’t arrive until 2015 at the earliest.

Officials have said that any amphibious capability that Japan develops would be used solely to defend Japanese territory. The current interpretation of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, some of which the Abe administration wants to amend, forbids the use of armed force overseas and limits the use of force strictly for defensive purposes.