Japan Sends Its Troops Into Uncharted Waters

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Cpl. Jonathan R. Waldman USMC

Japanese Ground Self Defense Force divers leap from a GSDF helicopter during a training exercise off the California coast last week. Troops from all three of Japan’s armed services are training with the U.S. Navy and Marines for amphibious warfare.

TOKYO – A major amphibious warfare exercise off the California coast is not intended as a dress rehearsal for combat in the Japanese islands — but it could work out that way.

For the first time, troops from all three Japanese armed services are practicing how to seize and defend remote islands, and conduct combat operations in close coordination with the U.S. Navy and Marines. It is the latest, biggest – and potentially most troubling — step in expanding the roles and missions of the Japanese Self Defense Force since China began aggressively pressing claims on Japanese administered islands in 2010.

Japan has sent three large warships and some 250 ground troops to take part in Dawn Blitz 2013, which officially kicked off this week. The exercise includes some 5,000 troops – mostly U.S. Marines and sailors, but a small number of ships and soldiers from Canada and New Zealand, as well. Seven other countries, including Australia and Singapore, have sent observers.

The exercise is part of the U.S. pivot, or re-balance, to the Asia-Pacific region. The host unit is the California-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which was activated in late 2009. It is designed to bridge the gap in size between Marine expeditionary units – which comprise about 2,200 troops – and Marine expeditionary forces, which can include as many as 50,000. All three groups are designed to deploy quickly to overseas battlefields and – being Marines — to fight their way ashore, if necessary.

Although Dawn Blitz has been held annually since 2010, this year’s exercise was re-organized in recent months to accommodate a larger and more ambitious Japanese role. Japan Ground Self Defense Force troops will practice beach landings, helicopter and small-boat raids, conduct live-fire and mock warfare exercises (against Marines), and train for a variety of other tasks related to fighting from the sea.

For the first time, Japan Ground Self Defense Force helicopters will operate from Japan Maritime Self Defense Force ship, and ground troops will call for live gunfire from ships offshore – a more dangerous and difficult task than it might appear.

In another first, Marine V-22 Ospreys will practice landings and takeoffs from the Japanese helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga, a carrier-like vessel designed for anti-submarine warfare, but adaptable for other missions, as well. For both the Japanese and Americans, learning how to function as a single team is another  goal of the exercise.

“The very first landing of an MV-22 Osprey on a Japanese ship is a historic moment,” said Brig. Gen. John Broadmeadow, the 1st MEB commander, in a statement this week.

The Japan Air Self Defense Force sent several observers and liaison officers to Dawn Blitz 2013, though not any warplanes. That’s partly because of logistical challenges, and partly because learning how to drop bombs near ground troops was seen as one task too many this time around.

(How difficult is “close-air support”? To keep from hitting their own troops, the Marines take highly-trained fighter pilots off flight duty for a year or more and assign them to ground units, for the sole purpose of calling in air strikes. It’s not clear whether Japanese fighter jocks will rush to sign up if they are asked to do the same.)

The exercise has not gone unnoticed in China, which harbors bitter memories of Japanese occupation during World War II and views any increase in defense capabilities as evidence of a return of Japanese militarism. According to the Kyodo news service, Beijing asked Japan to cancel its participation in Dawn Blitz, but was told No.

Japan likewise views with suspicion China’s growing military power and territorial ambitions. Chinese government patrol boats have sailed in or near Japanese-administered waters around the Senkaku Islands, which China calls Diaoyu, almost daily since December.

A PLA Navy warship locked its fire control radar on a Japanese destroyer in international waters near those islands earlier this year; no shots were fired, but the incident demonstrated the risks. Japanese leaders increasingly have asked how Japan, with little equipment or expertise in amphibious warfare, would respond if China were to seize one of Japan’s thousands of remote islands.

The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty obligates the United States to respond of Japanese-administered territory comes under attack, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan would take the lead in any islands crisis.

Until recently, there’s been little need for the Japanese armed services to work together, particularly in amphibious warfare. The current interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution forbids offensive operations, and the air, ground and maritime forces generally have operated alone, with strictly defensive and carefully separated responsibilities.

At least some of that will have to change if Japan wants to succeed at amphibious warfare. Soldiers will have to learn how to live aboard ships and protect their equipment from salt air; sailors must to learn to maneuver their ships in shallow water and fire at shifting targets ashore; pilots will have to sacrifice the thrill and glamour of air-to-air combat for the dirty work of flying low and slow, searching for targets on the ground.

All of that is in U.S. national interests, says Jason Wheelock, a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi International Affairs Fellow in Japan.

“For the first time, the Ground Self Defense Forces and the Maritime Self Defense Forces will be practicing what they call ‘joint fires,” says Wheelock, who is also a visiting fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo.  “That’s a key evolution and if they can get this right, I personally would like to see Japan taking a larger role in providing and actually exporting security in the region and allowing the U.S. to maybe array its forces around Japanese forces… that would be a better use of scarce defense resources.”

And could put Japanese forces deep in uncharted waters.