Japan makes further progress on its defense program guidelines

Japan makes further progress on its defense program guidelines

The Associated Press

One of Japan’s largest warships, the helicopter carrier Izumo, offers a glimpse of where its military is headed: For the first time, troops from a newly formed amphibious brigade of Japan’s Army participated in an extended naval deployment.

The Izumo left Subic, a former U.S. naval base in the Philippines, at the end of a two-month deployment in the Indo-Pacific region at a time of prolonged tensions involving the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) sweeping territorial claims in and around the South China Sea. The carrier, along with the destroyers Murasame and Akebono, just finished a series of drills with the United States and other countries. (Pictured: Two SH-60K anti-submarine helicopters stand by on the flight deck of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier JS Izumo in the foreground as it is joined by destroyers JS Akebono and JS Murasame, as well as Brunei’s patrol vessel KDB Daruttaqwa off the coast of Brunei in late June 2019.)

Japan’s ability to project military power beyond its borders is severely constrained by the commitment to pacifism enshrined in its post-World War II constitution, though in 2015 it was reinterpreted to allow the use of force in defending itself and its allies.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made amending the Constitution to allow the military greater leeway one of his lifetime goals. U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to help that cause, calling repeatedly for Japan to do more to defend itself under its alliance with the U.S.

In May 2019, Japan conducted its first quadrilateral exercise with Australia, France and the U.S. in the Bay of Bengal. Other drills have included Brunei, Canada, India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Japan is preparing to reconfigure the Izumo to accommodate U.S. stealth fighters, including F-35Bs, after announcing it would purchase 42 of its own.

The purchase underscores Japan’s growing role in its postwar alliance with the U.S.

Yasukazu Tanaka of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade said the recent exercises were meant to deepen coordination between them and ground troops to facilitate use of the carrier for transporting troops to front lines.

Since the Izumo can accommodate both air and sea transport, “there are great possibilities for us to conduct amphibious operations,” he said, though he and all others involved emphasized that the ground and marine troops conducted no joint exercises.

Ground troops are still exploring how best to operate on longer missions, where regulations limit use of live-fire weapons on board.

The PRC has been expanding its military presence to press home its determination to defend its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea in the face of challenges by the U.S. and its allies, unnerving many in the region.

The Defense Ministry says Japan’s Air Force scrambled fighter jets 999 times in 2018, the second highest number since it began defending its airspace in 1958. Of that number, 64% were responses to Chinese aircraft.

The U.S. Navy and others continue to sail their ships close to Chinese-occupied islands to assert the right to freedom of navigation. Beijing also has installed advanced weapons systems at several disputed locations, including seven islands it built by piling sand and concrete on top of coral atolls.

Some of those sites are now equipped with airstrips, radar and missile stations, expanding the PRC’s ability to monitor and potentially control activity by other militaries in the region.

During its five-day voyage from Brunei to the Philippines, Izumo skirted near the so-called nine-dash line marking the PRC’s territorial claims while conducting its past few exercises with navies from Brunei and the Philippines.

Japan’s Navy also hosted a training program for young representatives from Southeast Asian nations, with lectures on international maritime law, humanitarian and disaster relief programs, and exercises in navigation and communications.