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Taiwan threat tears down silos at Japan’s Self-Defense Forces

  • November 14, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 1:40 a.m.
  • English Press
  • ,

JUNNOSUKE KOBARA, Nikkei security affairs editor


TOKYO — The ground, maritime and air components of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have traditionally been siloed. There is rarely any swap of personnel between them and when they do come together for a meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo’s Ichigaya district, they attend in their respective uniforms.


They use different lingo. They salute in different ways. The maritime bunch famously love their curry. Other branches have their own favorite lunches.


But change is coming to the 240,000-person organization.


When the Ground Self-Defense Force held a drill in Kyushu from September through November, the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Osumi-class tank landing ship, JS Shimokita, took part. Ships frequently do take part in Ground SDF exercises, but what was different was that soldiers wearing camouflage gear were aboard the vessel.


The participants were members of the ground force’s logistical support unit. They specialize in delivering weapons and food to the front line through land transportation. But recently, they are studying sea transportation. 


A ground Self-Defense Force member takes part in a drill on a Maritime Self-Defense Force ship. (Photo courtesy of the Japanese Ministry of Defense)

That is because the main theater of operation for the Ground SDF is moving to the waters. China’s military activities around Taiwan occur mainly in the East and South China seas. Once a Taiwan contingency erupts, the Ground SDF’s main mission will be the defense of the Nansei Islands, a chain that includes the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers but China claims and calls the Diaoyu.


Delivering supplies quickly to isolated islands will be the order of the day. The Ground SDF’s traditional logistics model — based on the assumption that Soviet forces could invade the northern island of Hokkaido — does little to help the new realities.   


To meet today’s threats, the Ministry of Defense has decided to give the Ground SDF mid-sized and small transportation ships. The Maritime SDF will train ground forces at their facilities.    


“The Ground SDF doesn’t have experience operating or navigating ships,” said Ground SDF Chief of Staff Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida. “We will receive training from the Maritime SDF and hone our skills together with them.” 

The high wall between the ground and maritime forces stems back to the pre-World War II days. In the Meiji era, the army was dominated by the Choshu Domain from Yamaguchi Prefecture, while the navy was run by the Satsuma Domain from Kagoshima Prefecture. 


In the Showa Era, the Imperial Japanese Army saw the Germans as the natural partner, considering the Soviet threat. That path faced opposition from elements in the Imperial Navy, who stressed that such a collaboration would hamper relations with the U.K. and U.S.


The divide was reflected in the procurement of equipment. The army secured its own ships and even had its own self-designed submarines during WWII. The army and navy would not operate together under a single umbrella strategy, but rather go their own ways.


An F-35B takes off from the multipurpose destroyer Izumo, a de facto aircraft carrier, in the Pacific Ocean on Oct. 2. (Photo courtesy of the Maritime Self-Defense Force)

In the postwar period, the SDF has tried to learn from such past mistakes. The National Defense Academy, the four-year, university-level service academy, trains candidates for ground, maritime and air branches together, unlike the separate school system of the prewar era.


“Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, the founder of our school, had strong reservations toward the sectionalism of the prewar military,” said President Fumiaki Kubo. 


It is clear that a Taiwan contingency would require an integrated operation of the SDF branches. The Maritime and Ground SDF will use the Izumo-class multipurpose destroyer as a de facto aircraft carrier, deploying the latest F-35B fighter jets on its deck. 


In missile defense, the ground, maritime and air components of the SDF are combining their respective computer systems to increase interception accuracy. 


Seven decades after Yoshida criticized the silos of the Imperial Japanese Military, the SDF looks to be tackling sectionalism for real. And it is fueled by China. 

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