KUALA LUMPUR – The Japan Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF), the world’s fourth-largest navy, has been patrolling the waters off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden in Africa for the past 10 years to protect Japan-affiliated vessels along this vital sea lane from acts of piracy.
However, there is a role that Malaysia plays in facilitating the deployment of JMSDF personnel that Japan is always thankful for — this year alone the servicemen made five transit stopovers at KLIA and Subang Air Base here on their way to their African missions as well as transiting here en route back home at the end of their three-month stints.
JMSDF’s 40th deployment unit made a transit at KLIA in September on their way to Djibouti and again recently for an overnight stay before returning to Japan.
Commander Naomi Igarashi, the Deputy Defence Attache at the Japanese Embassy in Malaysia, was on hand to receive the 32 personnel who arrived in two JMSDF turbo aircraft after long haul flights from Djibouti plus a stopover in the Maldives.
She said at KLIA that in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, airports around the world allowing an overnight transit were limited.
“And Malaysia accepts our assets, allows us to stay overnight for refuelling and gives the crew the much-needed rest at a nearby hotel.
“We are very grateful for the support. Terima kasih,” said Commander Naomi, the first female naval attache at the Japanese Embassy here.
She pointed out that even amidst the pandemic, Japan has been continuing counter-piracy operations overseas and transits for inbound and outbound between Japan and Djibouti were a vital component for the deployment forces.
“Cooperation with Malaysia by these forces contribute to the maritime safety and security for the international community. Japan will continue to work with Malaysia and strengthen bilateral ties,” she added.
Emphasising the importance of JMSDF’s deployments, Commander Naomi said many merchant ships were making transits from Africa, Middle East and Eastern Europe on their way to Japan carrying oil and other goods and Japan was fully dependent on the sea-lift and such protection was very necessary for Japan’s prosperity and development.
She said the JMSDF and Malaysia had a long history of cooperation, not only on naval matters but also on multiple issues including on training of crew members and humanitarian disaster relief seminars.
Lt. Commander Masahiko Ishimura, who led the just-completed deployment said there had been no serious piracy incidents during their three-month mission.
“The most important thing is how to prevent the crew from being infected with COVID-19 during the mission and we completed our mission without any COVID-19 cases.
“We could not carry our mission without the understanding and cooperation of Malaysia and the international community,” he said.
Japan’s decision meanwhile, to build two new naval vessels equipped with Aegis missile interceptors — an alternative to a scrapped plan to deploy a land-based system — could prompt further armament by potential adversaries, security experts have warned.
The Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga approved on Dec 18 deployment of the ships and possible installation of interceptor missiles capable of countering various aerial threats, including cruise missiles, The Japan Times reported.
Japan has been concerned about the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region amid a deterioration in U.S.-China relations, seeing Beijing as seeking to change the strategic status quo in the East and South China seas through force and coercion with its increasing military capability. It has also been threatened by North Korea’s missile development.
With Japan deploying additional ships with the capability to counter airborne threats, “It can be expected to have a certain effect in raising the psychological hurdle for China and North Korea to launch missile attacks,” said Tetsuo Kotani, an expert on international security at Meikai University.
But he also said such a deployment will allow China and Russia to “justify further military expansion, as they will likely criticize Japan by saying it will undermine strategic stability,” he wrote in an email interview.
With the deployment, Japan will increase the number of Aegis ships in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force to 10, the second largest such fleet in the world after the U.S. Navy, which has dozens of vessels equipped with the Aegis system.
But the Defense Ministry said it had yet to decide where the ships will operate and whether to add more functions to counter enemy vessels and submarines as self-protection measures.
In June, Japan scrapped a plan to deploy the land-based Aegis Ashore system in two locations due to technical problems, swelling costs and local opposition.
The government originally sought to use the system to counter missile threats from North Korea and defend remote islands in southwestern Japan in light of China’s rising maritime assertiveness.
Escalation in military capability
Corey Wallace, an expert on security in East Asia at Kanagawa University, said that whether on the ground or at sea, Japan’s move to enhance its defense capability using the Aegis system could lead to an escalation in military capability by China and North Korea.
Meanwhile, there are rising concerns that conventional missile defense systems would be ineffective, as countries including China and Russia have been developing weapons that travel faster than Mach 5, or so-called hypersonic glide vehicles.
Such weapons employ technologies that enable weapons to glide faster and lower than usual ballistic missiles, making it even harder to intercept them.
“As for hypersonic glide missiles, it is difficult to intercept them with the current Aegis system. But it is possible to enhance the capability to intercept them by combining the system with PAC-3s and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense,” Kotani said, referring to Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile interceptors.
The THAAD system, deployed in South Korea and the United States, can intercept missiles at altitudes higher than PAC-3s but lower than the Aegis system.
“Japan and the United States will be able to deal with such high-speed weapons in the future, as they plan to develop enhanced satellite surveillance capabilities as well as new interceptors and directed-energy weapons such as lasers capable of eliminating maneuverable warheads,” Kotani said.
If a ballistic missile is launched against Japan, the heat source will first be detected by the U.S. military’s early warning satellites.
The Self-Defense Forces will use radars to track the missile from the ground or sea to predict where it will fall, and then direct Aegis destroyers and PAC-3 interceptors to shoot it down.
Ballistic missiles flying along a parabolic trajectory are easier to track and intercept than gliding weapons.
Having the two new Aegis ships will enable the MSDF to deploy vessels more flexibly. But it is also expected to increase their burden and costs.
Before being scrapped, it had been hoped the Aegis Ashore plan would help reduce the workload for the JMSDF, which has been on alert 24 hours a day against possible missiles from North Korea.
“The JMSDF already has a manpower shortage. Aegis Ashore would have essentially allowed the JMSDF to redeploy Aegis-equipped vessels or allow a slightly more relaxed tempo of operations,” Wallace said.
But he also said that introducing the new ships “will likely free up the U.S. Navy,” which is on duty to counter ballistic missiles, and could let it focus on the maritime assertiveness of China southwest of Japan.