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Analysis: First U.S. ship protection mission a political message to North Korea

By Hiroshi Maetani, Noriaki Kinoshita

 

On May 1, the government embarked on a new “U.S. ship protection” mission based on the security laws that came into force last year. This is not because there is a strong likelihood of a direct threat from North Korea off the Pacific coast, but is more of a political message to North Korea amid its repeated missile launches and other provocative actions. Joint operations by the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the U.S. forces in Asia-Pacific in peacetime, in the name of cooperation under the security alliance, are likely to accelerate.

 

The government decided on this ship protection mission by the Maritime SDF (MSDF) based on a request from the U.S. side. While the government has not announced the mission, it is believed that it was agreed at the National Security Council (NSC) meeting held on April 29 in response to North Korea’s missile launch that Defense Minister Tomomi Inada would issue the order. It appears that the government’s purpose is to send a message to North Korea that in addition to the U.S.’s military pressure, Japan and the U.S. are also cooperating to increase military pressure, since the DPRK is continuing with its provocations despite demands from China and the international community for it to exercise restraint.

 

However, the Izumo, which was assigned to this mission, is a destroyer designed to serve as offshore operational base for island defense or during a major disaster. It does not have the attack capability of regular destroyers equipped with anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons. A Defense Ministry source points out that “it’s more of a policy move for show.”

 

The government had been considering conducting a U.S. ship protection mission sometime this year. A strong request also came from the U.S. side amid rising tensions in the North Korean situation. Although the MSDF had participated in a joint exercise with the USS Carl Vinson in waters east of Tsushima on April 29, it decided against a ship protection mission at that time. Apparently, the U.S. also judged that with several Aegis ships escorting its aircraft carrier, such a mission in waters close to the Korean peninsula would provoke North Korea too much.

 

Aegis ships are actually most suitable for protection against North Korean missiles. It can be said that the Izumo, which will also participate in the International Maritime Review in Singapore on May 15, was chosen not for its protection capability but for its visual effect as the MSDF’s largest helicopter carrier to project a show of force. There is also an opinion that the deployment of the Izumo, which has superior surveillance capability against submarines, was also meant as a warning against China’s maritime advances. 

 

The guidelines on U.S. ship protection operations drawn up by the government last December cover three cases: surveillance and intelligence collection on ballistic missiles; provision of supplies and transportation in a “situation with a major impact”; and joint exercises. Although the defense minister has not revealed the details of her order, it is believed that the current mission is being undertaken as a joint exercise.

 

The Izumo will escort the U.S. supply ship from waters off the Boso Peninsula to Shikoku. The only conceivable case in which the U.S. will require protection is if it is attacked or sabotaged by armed forces camouflaged as fishing crews or an accidental armed conflict with an enemy state. This is very unlikely to occur in the Pacific off Japan. A government source predicts that “this mission will probably end with just training and joint navigation.” It appears that this “new mission” is mostly an exercise “to set a precedent.”

 

Uncertainty remains with regard to ship protection missions. Provisions of the government’s guidelines regarding operations involving foreign forces stipulate that unless in cases where “actual damages have been inflicted on the SDF or the U.S. forces or an abnormal situation emerged,” protection missions will not be announced. Amid increasing Japan-U.S. integration as a result of growing tensions in the North Korean situation, there is concern that full-fledged missions will be undertaken whose validity will be difficult to verify.

 

The opposition parties reacted strongly to the MSDF’s U.S. asset protection mission. Japanese Communist Party Chairman Kazuo Shii expressed concern by saying: “This will aggravate military escalation in the region. If the Trump administration launches a military attack, the SDF will automatically be involved in the conflict.”

 

A senior Democratic Party official also stated: “We are opposed to surreptitious integration between Japan and the U.S.”

 

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