The Ministry of Defense has set up a task force in preparation for dispatching a Self-Defense Forces unit to the Middle East. It will discuss operations of the unit as well as equipment and responses to contingencies within the SDF Joint Staff Office. It will decide how to utilize patrol planes and naval vessels with an eye on joint operations with an SDF counter-piracy unit, which is currently deployed to the Gulf of Aden off Somalia. The SDF will switch to maritime patrol operations, which allow for the use of weapons, in the event of an attack against a Japanese ship. But decision-making remains difficult.
The Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) will play a key role in the field once an SDF unit is dispatched to the Middle East. But the Joint Staff Office will take overall command of operations as it coordinates the three branches of the SDF. The task force will be joined by the MSDF and a unit that oversees vessel operations.
The MOD envisages the SDF dispatch for the purpose of “research and study,” a provision stipulated in the Defense Ministry Establishment Act. The scope of activities is not limited if the SDF is sent for research and study. Nor is it mandatory to indicate in advance to where the SDF will be dispatched.
The MOD surmises that patrol planes and escort ships will play a pivotal role in actual intelligence gathering.
At present two patrol planes are deployed for counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. One idea being floated is that of these two planes one will be deployed for the Middle Eastern mission. But these planes are based in Djibouti located in the eastern part of Africa. They are 2,200 km away from the Gulf of Oman, which the MOD envisages as one area for possible operations, in a straight line, and it takes about eight hours to fly there and back. This scenario may require Japan to use the military base of another nation for refueling and repair work.
With regards to escort ships, the dispatch of another vessel is regarded as the most feasible scenario. At present, one vessel is deployed to the Gulf of Aden for maritime counter-piracy monitoring operations in cooperation with other countries. It is difficult to take that ship off station for an extended period for use in another mission.
The counter-piracy unit is deployed in the Gulf of Aden in accordance with anti-piracy operations [stipulated in the anti-piracy law,] which authorize the use of weapons. Those operations are inconsistent with operations for the purpose of research and study.
“We don’t normally assign one vessel to perform two duties,” said a senor MOD official. From 2009 to 2016, two escort ships were deployed for the counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Some people in the MOD argue that “we are just returning to the two-vessel system.” (Abridged)