Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force last month commissioned the JS Kaga, the second vessel in its newest class of destroyers that offer amphibious benefits as they can carry up to nine helicopters.
Shortly before the commissioning of the so-called helicopter destroyer, word leaked that the Kaga’s sister ship, the JS Izumo will leave in May on a cruise through the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean for a trilateral exercise with the Indian and US navies.
Then on March 27th, the Japan Ground Self Defense Force formally stood up its new Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade in Sasebo. The brigade when fully formed will include about 3,000 troops and their armored vehicles, heavy weapons, and helicopters.
China has noted these developments in Japan and raised warnings about a rise of militarism. Yet, although Tokyo since 2012 has moved quickly to boost these types of capabilities, they are certainly nowhere near the scale of China’s own amphibious forces.
Beside that, Japan’s navy forces already have too many missions and too few sailors, a history of lack of coordination with land forces, and a shortage of amphibious training areas in the country.
The Japanese services are also starved of funds, despite token budget increases in recent years.
The Kaga and Izumo are first-rate ships and can be modified to handle F35B fighters – but lack well decks (a bottom deck than can be flooded and handle amphibious vehicles and landing craft.)
Even if Japan did manage to overcome some of these challenges, its amphibious force poses a threat to nobody outside the country, considering that its new amphibious unit will be able to land perhaps 600 troops ashore at best.
Japan’s amphibious force is more suited to humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and conducting exercises with partners. But going overseas to throw some weight around isn’t in the cards.
The irony in China’s warning that the Kaga and Izumo vessels represent a revival of Japanese militarism is that Beijing has built an amphibious force that is something to be concerned about.
And that force regularly gets out and trains in the South and East China Seas – as well as an increasing number of amphibious exercises with Russia.
To put this in context, as Japan was launching the Kaga and standing up its 3,000-strong amphibious brigade, China announced it was increasing its own Marine Corps to 100,000 troops from 20,000.
China also said it was starting work on Type 075 amphibious ships, which are comparable to top of the line US Navy Wasp-class amphibious vessels and much bigger than Izumo and Kaga. (They also come with the well decks the Japanese forgot.)
On top of this, China already has a respectable amphibious force with four modern Type 071 vessels, assault vehicles, and older ships. Add in 30,000-40,000 army troops trained for amphibious operations.
China’s military has always understood the value of amphibious forces. About five years ago an article in a Chinese periodical stressed the need for amphibious vessels over aircraft carriers.
The author rightly understood that amphibious forces — combining air, sea, and ground capabilities — allow access almost anywhere there is an ocean and a coastline and then to put a lot of troops, hardware and supplies ashore for as long as needed.
There’s a permanence and punch to this capability that aircraft flying overhead and ships cruising offshore cannot match. And amphibious skills are not hard to learn with the money, manpower, hardware and the will. The Chinese have all of these.
Within five years, expect to see a Chinese amphibious force comparable to a US Navy Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit — about 2,000 Marines and three amphibious ships — operating in East Asia for starters.
Amphibious operations and the assurance — plus implicit threat — that comes with them will no longer be just an American show in the Asia-Pacific.
And as China’s One Belt One Road plans take shape to include bases in Djibouti and Pakistan, and port access elsewhere, Chinese marines and amphibious forces will be a regular presence in and around the Indian Ocean, and even into the Mediterranean.
Japan’s efforts to create an amphibious force typify the haphazardness of Tokyo’s broader attempt to bolster its military in recent years – no matter how well intentioned.
Meanwhile, China’s development of amphibious forces reflects a systematic, well-resourced approach towards specific military capabilities to enforce political and economic dominance over the Asia region (and even beyond).
The trends have been clear for some time, but were largely ignored by Japanese and American officialdom. It’s late in the day, but there is still time for interested parties – including the Australians and Indians – to figure something out. They may want to hurry.
Grant Newsham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired US Marine Colonel.