With the situation tense between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, the mood for giving the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) the capability to launch amphibious assaults from the sea like the U.S. Marines is growing.
“We should show our resolve and capabilities to defend our territories by ourselves without depending on U.S. forces. Such a stance will serve as a deterrent,” a GSDF executive said.
However, the possibility of an outbreak of fighting to take back an islet is remote. Therefore, even officials of the Defense Ministry are expressing doubts on the idea.
Still, in September, the GSDF participated in training exercises in the U.S. territory of Guam to regain control of islands that were taken by an enemy. In the training, GSDF members were taught landing fundamentals by U.S. Marines.
In the presidential election campaign of the largest opposition Liberal Democratic Party, a candidate said, “Japan should have its own Marines.”
“It is necessary to promote preparations for equipment and training that enables the GSDF to have the functions of Marines,” said Eiji Kimizuka, the GSDF Chief of Staff.
The GSDF now wants some of its members to have the amphibious capabilities to defend Japanese islands located between the Kyushu island and Taiwan. Those islands are called, “Nansei Shoto” (southwestern islands).
The GSDF already has a unit in charge of defending remote islands. The unit is the GSDF Western Army Infantry Regiment, which was formed in 2002 and is now based in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture.
Members of the unit have undergone training for reconnaissance in small groups and combat training. However, the training does not include large-scale landing operations.
Landing operations, which are likely to be conducted under heavy fire and facing fierce counterattacks from enemy forces, is militarily regarded as a dangerous operation. As Self-Defense Forces’ duties have been strictly limited to the defense of Japanese territories, landing operations have been regarded as unnecessary.
The government’s basic defense program and mid-term defense plan, both of which pay much attention to China’s military buildup, do not include plans for the establishment of Japanese Marines.
In the next fiscal year that begins in April 2013, the GSDF plans to purchase four amphibious vehicles, which can be used for landing operations, at a total cost of about 2.5 billion yen ($31.3 million).
The major candidate model for the purchase is the AAV-7 landing vehicle, the same as used by the U.S. Marines. The four amphibious assault craft will be used for research purposes for the time being to study how many vehicles of that model will be necessary in the future.
In an amphibious assault, amphibious vehicles are loaded onto large vessels and are launched from the sea.
The Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) currently has three transport vessels that can be loaded with landing boats called LCAC (landing craft, air-cushioned). However, large-scale revamping of the three vessels is necessary to launch amphibious vehicles from them.
There is also an option of constructing new transport vessels. In the MSDF, however, there is a strong opposition to cutting the budgets for other vessels to fund the construction of new transport vessels.
“It is more realistic to send special units with helicopters or submarines than using amphibious vehicles that can travel at a maximum speed of only about 10 kilometers per hour,” an SDF officer said.
An SDF executive added, “In the first place, a situation in which the ground forces (of Japan and an enemy country) battle on remote islands is unlikely to take place.”
It is extremely unlikely that an enemy would try to capture remote islands whose supply routes could be easily severed if it cannot maintain its superiority in the air or sea.
In the Cold War era, the GSDF prepared equipment for action on the battlefield on the assumption that Soviet forces invaded Hokkaido. The leading equipment was tanks, which numbered 1,200 at their peak. Now, the figure has decreased to about 760. It will be cut further to 400 by around 2020.
Tetsuo Maeda, a former professor of security at Tokyo International University, who is now working as a military critic, said the GSDF is trying to maintain its presence.
“Unless the GSDF finds a new chance to show itself off, its influence could decline. So it is trying to find a chance amid the ‘following wind,’ which means the tense situation resulting from the Senkaku Islands,” Maeda said.
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