“Yoshi, isn’t there some way we could take advantage of the steep terrain of this island for defense purposes?”
General Charles Flynn, commanding general of the United States Army Pacific, was speaking to Chief of Staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) Yoshida Yoshihide. On Sept. 8, the two inspected by helicopter Amami Oshima (Kagoshima Prefecture) in the Nansei Islands, where GSDF forces are stationed. During the approximately 40-minute trip, Flynn frequently spoke with Yoshida, confirming in detail the deployment of troops and location of explosives warehouses on the island.
Flynn was probably trying to visualize how the Japanese and American anti-ship missile forces would be used in the event of an invasion of the island by enemy ships.
The GSDF and the U.S. Army have rapidly enhanced their cooperation over the past two to three years. In the case of the Nansei Islands, the Marine Corps, which is stationed on the main island of Okinawa, would respond immediately. “The Army is the symbol of the commitment of the U.S. military itself,” says Yoshida, emphasizing GSDF cooperation with the U.S. Army. The visit to Amami Oshima with Flynn was also an unusual event that reflected Yoshida’s wishes.
The visit also exposed the difference between the stances of Japan and the United States, however. For the first time ever, Japan and the United States used electronic warfare equipment that harnesses electromagnetic waves in “Orient Shield 22.” This joint exercise triggered the Amami Oshima visit. The visit was scheduled to be announced to the press on Aug. 31. About two weeks prior, however, the U.S. side hastily notified Japan that it would not be made public for reasons of confidentiality. This meant the Japanese side was not able to communicate to the people of Japan and the international community that Japan and the U.S. are deepening their cooperation as it had wanted to.
“There are many points of friction, but there are also many areas where we can work together,” said Major General Joel Vowell, commander of U.S. Army Japan, when asked at a press conference about electronic warfare interoperability. The statement left the impression that even strong allies have different motives when it comes to the details.
Consideration given to residents’ sentiments
Last year, the GSDF began “Resolute Dragon,” joint exercises aimed at enhancing the interoperability between the U.S. Marine Corps and the army corps located throughout Japan that would be deployed to the Nansei Islands in the event of a contingency. More joint exercises will be held this October with the Northern Army, which has jurisdiction over Hokkaido.
“The Marines requested that the drills be conducted outside SDF-held land,” said a GSDF source involved in the preparations. The Marine Corps wants to conduct ubiquitous deployment drills to carry out “expeditionary advanced base operations” (EABO). In EABO, small missile units are dispersed to various places within range of Chinese missiles. “The Nansei Islands are difficult because of residents’ sentiments. (The U.S. forces) are willing to conduct the exercises in Hokkaido, which is also vast,” said the GSDF source. The Nansei Islands were the site of fierce battles during World War II.
Here is the biggest problem in conducting EABO: EABO is not envisioned to be conducted solely on land held by the U.S. military or SDF. Existing garrisons are occupied by SDF units deployed from the mainland, leaving little room for Marines. EABO proves its worth only when troops are deployed to places that China does not anticipate.
Using privately held land always presents a barrier. Moreover, the terrain must be changed, and temporary buildings must be erected for the troops. If landowners refuse to allow the land to be used, the Expropriation of Land Act can be applied and the land acquired for a fee for public benefit, or the Act on Special Measures for USFJ Land Release can be applied and the land expropriated for provision to the U.S. military under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
If they have been ordered by the prime minister to mobilize for defense, the SDF has the right to use land, but the legal basis for making the land available to the U.S. military has yet to be put into place. In addition, no one has expertise on the Act on Special Measures for USFJ Land Release, as there have been no cases where it has been applied. In any case, the process of approval and expropriation could take an enormous amount of time.
Disagreement during exercises
There are also operational issues. Under EABO, Marines would deploy forward to the first island chain, which links Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines. It is also envisioned that the GSDF would deploy to remote islands. Cooperation with the Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces would be essential.
A certain high-ranking Southwestern ASDF official stresses the importance of equipment research performed not only by the U.S. Air Force but also by the Marine Corps. This is because he recognizes that it is the cooperation between the EABO units and the ASDF that will determine the battle situation in the event of a Nansei Islands contingency. “In the southwestern region, all branches of the SDF—Ground, Maritime, and Air—will become ‘Marine Corps,'” he said.
The Maritime and Air SDF’s participation in Resolute Dragon is limited, however. The full value of EABO cannot be demonstrated unless integrated exercises involving all SDF branches are the focus.
The way joint operations are implemented is also an issue. A former high-ranking GSDF official points out, “The U.S. military sees all of Northeast Asia as its theater of operations, but the SDF can only designate Japan’s territory and territorial waters as its theater of operations. Joint operations are impossible unless Japan and the U.S. share the same perspective on this point.”
Will the Maritime and Air SDF deploy to the first island chain along with the GSDF and U.S. Marine Corps, or will they get themselves out of China’s missile range and then push forward alongside the U.S. Navy and Air Force, which would come from behind?
The answer varies depending on the situation, but it is said that opinions were divided within the SDF during command post exercises. In the event of a contingency in the Nansei Islands, not only would Japan and the United States need to move together but also the Ground, Maritime and Air SDF would need to operate as one.