New Japanese Marines – Why Japan Needs Them

Japan now has something like ‘Marines.’  The Japan Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) formally stood up its new Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) at a ceremony on April 7th at Camp Ainoura near Sasebo.

This writer was involved from the late 2000’s in getting Japan’s new amphibious force off the ground and also served as the first US Marine Corps’ liaison officer to the GSDF.  He offers the following observations about the ARDB and its significance, capabilities and prospects.

How does this force improve Japan’s defenses in the Southwest island chain?

It’s a useful piece of the puzzle for defending the Nansei Shoto (also known as the Ryukyus) – and fills a gap in the several military capabilities needed to defend the region. The local geography – islands and ocean – positively cries for an amphibious capability. Without an amphibious force, the JSDF would be hard-pressed to operate from ship to shore – beyond maybe slipping in a few commandos – except where a port is available, and an enemy cooperates and lets JSDF pull up pier side. ARDB gives the Japanese additional options – and also complicates things for an adversary. Although the Japanese Air Force (ASDF) and certain Japanese Navy (MSDF) officers have sometimes promised their services alone can defend the Nansei Shoto, experience and history show that a combined approach is usually a better approach to military operations – as each service has a capability that does what the others cannot.

Of course, the ARDB by itself isn’t enough to ensure Nansei Shoto defense. JSDF still needs adequate naval and air forces – and more importantly, to be able to operate them in a coordinated, joint fashion. And it’s even better if they are linked with US forces operating in the area. That is by far the best way to defend the Nansei Shoto.

The ARDB – assuming it gets fully integrated with the MSDF part of the amphibious force – serves a useful purpose of finally creating a joint JSDF unit combining ground, sea, and air capabilities. Maybe this example of cooperation will cause a broader change of thinking throughout the JSDF – and thus address the Japanese military’s principal shortcoming. The ARDB / amphibious force might also attract the more jointly minded officers and enlisted troops – and who also want to do something ‘real.’

Finally, the mere fact that Japan has made the effort to develop a new capability that’s well suited for defending Japan’s southern territories might have a deterrent effect on its own. It suggests ‘pacifist’ Japan may not be so willing to ‘roll over’ as China increases pressure in the East China Sea and the Nansei Shoto region.

How does the ARDB stack up against other marine units in Asia?

This is a tricky question – and akin to arguing if Michael Jordan is a better basketball player than Lebron James. The ARDB’s officers and troops are excellent – but need more practice, especially with MSDF – in order to master amphibious capabilities. They also need adequate training opportunities – that would be a lot easier if there was an amphibious training area in Japan. And some of the ‘safety’ restraints placed on their training activities are unnecessarily restrictive. Another useful improvement would be to allow officers at all levels (and SNCO’s and NCO’s) to use more of their initiative and judgment – which is one of USMC’s strong points.

As for stacking up against other Marine units? Raw human material, as noted, is excellent, and is as good as any – and the Japanese Navy is Asia’s best. But overall amphibious capability at the moment is perhaps around where the Indonesian and Thai Marine Corps are at, and maybe behind a bit.

The comparisons are difficult and ‘back of the envelope.’ But given the resources available to ARDB/MSDF, and if political will and funding exists, there’s no reason the Japanese amphibious force can’t eventually match the Australians – who I expect will be one of Asia’s best ‘Marine Corps’ before too long – along with the ROK and Taiwan Marine Corps. But it will take effort, commitment, and money.

Will the Japanese amphibious force match the USMC/USN team? Not in terms of overall capability, but they don’t need to. They just need a force that suits Japan’s unique requirements and to match the Americans in terms of professionalism – just like the British Royal Marines and others.

I hope the US Marines (and Navy) provide full support to the ARDB/amphibious force. Indeed, one would like to see more Marine and Navy liaison officer/advisors working closely with the ARDB and MSDF, and vice versa. And why not bring the new Australian amphibious force into the mix – with JSDF and ADF interactions?

Unfortunately, I have my doubts that USMC writ large really understands the benefits to both US forces and the Japan-US security alliance that come of a capable Japanese amphibious force. Time will tell.

What are the challenges Japan faces in operating this force?

The biggest challenge is that the Japanese are getting a late start, even though they’ve moved fairly quickly to go from zero amphibious capability to ARDB – with a reasonable degree of cooperation with MSDF – within about six or seven years.

The ARDB / amphibious force needs to train constantly and ‘regularize’ its relationship with MSDF – so it as established and natural as is the USMC-USN relationship whereby joint amphibious operations typified by the standing Marine Expeditionary Unit/Amphibious Ready Group (MEU/ARG) – and not an ad hoc thing put together now and then. It will be good to see a joint JSDF ‘amphibious force’ headquarters established – and the fact ARDB is adjacent to MSDF at Sasebo is a good thing.

Proper air support is also a challenge. Although GSDF has some attack and transport helicopters it can use, it needs a fixed-wing attack capability. Either ASDF finally cooperates and takes on the close air support role, or MSDF develops a naval aviation arm – say, based on the F35B. Either way, this will take some time and effort to bring to fruition. While F35B’s can operate off the JS Izumo and similar ships (or even off of US amphibs) they can also operate easily from shore. And even without F35’s, ASDF F15’s operating from airfields in the Nansei Shoto region can also provide coverage for ARDB and a Japanese ‘MEU/ARG’

What equipment will the amphibious force need beyond what it already has?

As noted, fixed wing air support is necessary. And it’s also important to ‘Marine-ize’ aircraft and equipment so it can stand up to operations in a maritime environment with salt corrosion problems. ‘Marine-izing’ also includes simple things like ensuring helicopters have folding blades so they can more easily fit on amphibious ships.

The amphibious force also needs more amphibious ships. MSDF only has a few LST’s and the bigger ‘amphibs’ like JS Hyuga and JS Izumo lack well decks needed to handle amphibious vehicles. Also, you can only operate a portion of your ships owing to maintenance requirements, so look at the total number in the inventory and reduce that by about 1/3. That’s how many amphibious ships you really have.

The old Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV’s) will do for now and are useful also in forcing GSDF and MSDF to cooperate and figure out how to use them. The ‘next generation’ amphibious assault vehicle will hopefully come along someday before too long – but for now the AAV’s will do.

How far away is Japan from having a MEU?

They’ve already got the ability to put together an ad hoc ‘MEU’ – as demonstrated by sending three ships with GSDF aboard to Dawn Blitz 13 and 15 exercises off southern California. That’s no small feat. And the Operation Damayaan typhoon relief operation in November 2013 was another example of JSDF putting together an ad hoc MEU operation.

But to have a solid, standing MEU capability requires concerted effort and a desire by both GSDF and MSDF to bring it to fruition – and fully link capabilities. It some ways it’s a question of will – since Japan has most of the equipment needed for a MEU/ARG – along with quality personnel.

Also, a MEU/ARG needn’t be the three ship/2000 Marine version like the 31st MEU based in Sasebo and Okinawa. A couple ships and say, 600 ‘Marines’ from the ARDB can be plenty.

Getting the aviation part fully developed and integrated will require extra effort – and don’t forget the need to properly link communications systems, which JSDF makes much harder than necessary.

All in all, if Japan put its mind to it, within a year or year and a half it could have a reasonably capable MEU/ARG capability. It needn’t be perfect or the mirror image of the USMC/USN model, but it would be a useful tool in the JSDF toolbox – allowing it to conduct a type of operation in littoral zones (of which the Nansei Shoto has plenty) that it currently cannot.

Isn’t the ARDB and an amphibious capable JSDF a threat?

No it isn’t. Or at least not to anyone beyond Japanese territory. When at full-strength around 2023, the ARDB will be capable of landing about 600-700 troops ashore somewhere. That’s less than the people on a single crowded Tokyo subway train at rush hour. Meanwhile, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has announced plans for a 100,000-man Marine Corps – that will also be used for overseas operations. Now, which one of these is a threat?