PATTAYA, Thailand—An exercise here that tested the ability of Self-Defense Forces troops to evacuate civilians overseas has highlighted problems ranging from mandate restrictions to patchy field skills.
Some troops appraised their readiness as modest.
"We are incapable of executing a 'Rambo-style operation,' " said one SDF member, citing a Hollywood action hero widely seen as defining a can-do military attitude.
A long-planned multinational exercise involving SDF troops and the armed forces of four other countries on Feb. 17 gained added prominence after 10 Japanese engineers died in a mass hostage-taking by Islamist militants at a natural gas plant in Algeria in January. Seven Japanese individuals survived.
Existing laws prohibit the Japanese government from dispatching SDF troops to foreign emergencies unless it can confirm that they will not get drawn into the conflict.
But the SDF lacks a specific mandate to protect Japanese citizens overseas.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to overhaul the Self-Defense Forces law to enable a wider range of missions overseas.
The latest drill saw a small unit of SDF troops take part in a major annual exercise between U.S. and Thai forces, in which several other countries typically participate. Known as Cobra Gold, the exercise's individual drills continue at various locations in Thailand through Feb. 22. It is the 32nd time Cobra Gold is being held, and the ninth year that SDF forces are participating in it.
Thirty-five diplomats from Japanese missions worldwide, including the Middle East and Africa, played the role of civilians caught up in an unspecified emergency overseas.
A total of 34 Japanese troops helped them board aircraft at a hypothetical military base operated by another foreign country.
Tatsuo Tarumi, who heads the training and exercise section of the SDF Joint Staff Office, assessed the Japanese troops' performance as relatively successful.
"It was not 100 percent, but it went well up to a point," he said.
But the multilateral exercise sharply exposed the limits of what the SDF can do.
Existing law restricts troops to collecting Japanese citizens from airports and ports that are deemed safe and transporting them out of the theater by air and sea—not from dangerous ones, and not by driving them across foreign territory.
This exercise supposed that Japanese evacuees had been able to reach a secure airport under their own power. There, SDF troops met them and escorted them onto U.S. helicopters. The aircraft then flew the evacuees to a U.S. vessel playing the part of an SDF ship.
The SDF requirement of a safe operating location was in this case met by another nation's troops securing it for them. And the guns they carried could be used only within the strict bounds of self-defense—meaning they could not have sprung to the aid of allied forces under attack at the same base.
One Japanese government official was skeptical about the value of sending the SDF on such a mission.
"In these circumstances, a commercial jet would have done the job because it would be able to carry more passengers," the official said. "I also wonder whether an SDF ship could reach a foreign port swiftly enough."
Therefore, government officials said, revising the Self-Defense Forces law for this purpose would result in no significant capability boost.
Before the law was revised in 1999, the government considered allowing the SDF to transport Japanese nationals by land.
But officials calculated that escorting troops would be more likely to encounter a situation requiring more than pure self-defense. Using force overseas is considered a violation of Japan's war-renouncing Constitution—and, in this instance, the government backed down.
That view gained reinforcement amid revelations that attackers in Algeria had been armed with sophisticated assault weapons, perhaps from neighboring nations such as Libya.
"Only U.S., British and Israeli commanders have the capability to plan and execute a rescue operation of their nationals anywhere overseas," said a government official.
Whenever Britain or France, for example, see foreign crises looming and a potential need to evacuate expatriates, they dispatch foreign-service and military specialists to draw up contingency plans.
The SDF has only twice in its history transported Japanese nationals from overseas: from Iraq in 2004, and from Algeria last month.
Another government official said the use of SDF aircraft may often be the best option.
"Even if the mission involves danger, the best solution may be to dispatch ASDF aircraft abroad after making a political decision that the place is safe enough," said the official.
Meanwhile, the Cobra Gold exercise included a separate drill with the kind of scenario the government has recently been paying close attention to.
An amphibious assault demonstrated in central Thailand Feb. 14 was the kind of maneuver the SDF has been studying as it tries to enhance its readiness to recapture remote islands. Such a scenario seems more likely amid an ongoing flare-up in tensions between Japan and China over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
The Feb. 14 exercise saw U.S. and Thai forces deploy attack jets, landing craft and small boats—and Osprey aircraft from the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture. The SDF did not take part.
It remains unclear whether the SDF is able to conduct this type of operation.
The government referred to such a mission only for the first time in the National Defense Program Guidelines released in late 2010.
The Ground Self-Defense Force is currently conducting war games on such a scenario with U.S. Marines on the U.S. West Coast.
Defense analysts say the GSDF is able to conduct amphibious operations with its current strength and inventory.
But one U.S. Marine officer involved said the success of Cobra Gold's amphibious assault demonstration hinged on the effectiveness of coordination between participating nations and between the various elements of each one's fighting forces.
"We can work with ourselves pretty well, but working jointly and combined, it's a challenge," said Capt. Adam Stiles of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. Stiles is based in Okinawa.
The SDF lacks experience that the armed forces of other nations might consider second nature: using ships for cannon fire and jets to bomb targets. It has never conducted comprehensive, full-fledged exercises using only its own ordnance.
Satoshi Morimoto, former defense minister, explained this by saying Japan needs to take into account how SDF exercises might appear to its neighbors.
"Japan must not conduct aggressive exercises that create misunderstandings about its intentions with China and other Asian countries," he said.
Another barrier is the question of exercising the right to collective self-defense, which Abe is seeking to lift by altering the government's official interpretation of the Constitution.
Successive governments have worked under the understanding that although Japan has a right to collective self-defense in light of international law, the Constitution prevents that right from being exercised.
Moreover, even taking part in exercises like that conducted Feb. 14 could pose questions of legitimacy when the involved personnel include the forces of Thailand, with which, unlike the United States, Japan lacks a security treaty, defense analysts say.
Japan's choice of partner in trying to recapture a foreign-held island would be limited to just one nation: the United States.
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