The Defense Ministry considered this past spring a plan to reduce the number of personnel in the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) "security platoon" taking part in U.N. peacekeeping operations (PKO) in South Sudan, multiple sources have told the Mainichi Shimbun.
The ministry discussed the plan because it was feared that GSDF members could easily be ordered to perform so-called "rush and rescue" missions -- a new duty permitted under Japan's new security legislation -- if the United Nations believed that the GSDF contingent in South Sudan has an "infantry unit of a certain size," the sources said. The plan to scale back the unit did not surface initially as the idea fell through apparently because the government wanted to prevent challenges related to the controversial security legislation from becoming points of contention during the July House of Councillors election.
The government decided at a Cabinet meeting Nov. 15 to assign the rush and rescue security duty to the next batch of GSDF troops to be dispatched in stages from Nov. 20. The government says that the new duty will be carried out in a limited way, but the size of the security platoon will remain unchanged from the current level.
The government positions the GSDF unit of about 350 troops in South Sudan as an "engineering unit" tasked with such work as repairing roads. Of the entire GSDF unit, the security platoon is comprised of about 50 to 60 infantry personnel and will be in charge of coordinating with infantry units of other countries that keep watch on U.N. peacekeeping camps and activities related to relevant facilities.
While some GSDF officials believe that the rush and rescue missions are matter-of-course actions as on-site international activities, there was concern that the U.N. could ask the Japanese unit without hesitation to carry out infantry missions due to the size of the security platoon. Therefore, the Defense Ministry discussed a plan to cut back the actual size the security unit by assigning other ordinary duties to its infantry personnel. The ministry has taken a similar step when it dispatched SDF troops for PKO missions in the past.
The GSDF sounded out the Defense Ministry's Joint Staff Office in charge of operating troops about a proposal to scale back the security platoon. But ahead of the upper house election, the government had already decided to postpone its plan to assign the new rush and rescue duty until after the autumn. If the government were to move ahead to discuss the scale-back plan, it would be pressed to explain the purpose and risks of the plan. According to the sources, therefore, the Joint Staff Office reacted negatively to the scale-back plan, arguing that it was not the time to discuss organizing troops then.
The rush and rescue duties are missions for Japanese SDF personnel to carry weapons with them and rescue U.N. staff and other relevant individuals in distant locations.