Japan began on May 1 to guard a U.S. military vessel, one of the new missions that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are authorized to carry out under the security legislation that came into force in March 2016. On request from the U.S. forces, a Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) helicopter carrier is guarding a U.S. Navy supply ship in the Pacific Ocean.
Article 95 of the SDF Act authorizes SDF personnel to use weapons to prevent weapons and ammunition from being stolen or SDF vessels and aircraft from being destroyed.
The clause has been revised to cover the protection of weapons and other equipment belonging to U.S. and other countries' forces, which are conducting activities contributing to the defense of Japan in cooperation with the SDF.
This has opened the way for SDF personnel to use weapons in peacetime, such as in joint drills, as well as in so-called "gray-zone" contingencies that have not developed into armed attacks. Some critics have pointed out that the amended clause could be a loophole in restrictions on Japan exercising the right to collective self-defense, or use of force to guard other countries' military forces.
The government launched the ongoing mission as the United States has deployed a number of military vessels in waters off the Korean Peninsula to increase its military pressure on North Korea.
In the mission, the MSDF's largest helicopter carrier Izumo is sailing side-by-side with a U.S. supply vessel starting from an area off the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture heading west. The mission is aimed at demonstrating close bilateral defense cooperation to North Korea.
However, questions remain about the effectiveness of the ongoing operations. It appears as if the Japanese government is making haste to set a precedent of carrying out new missions permitted under the security legislation.
The government had initially planned to order the MSDF's first mission of guarding U.S. military vessels during Japan-U.S. joint drills this coming autumn, but brought it forward amid rising tensions over the North Korean situation.
The Izumo was originally due to leave its base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, to participate in an international fleet review in Singapore. This could give the public the impression that the government hastily worked out the plan for the MSDF ship to escort the U.S. military vessel before the fleet review.
The MSDF helicopter carrier and crewmembers are conducting the mission in the Pacific Ocean where the vessel is highly unlikely to be hit by North Korean ballistic missiles. The government may have attempted to avoid risks of being attacked by North Korea. However, since the MSDF is closely cooperating with U.S. forces in the mission, it is impossible to completely eliminate potential risks of being attacked.
The MSDF is carrying out the current mission on the order of Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. However, the government intends not to formally announce that Japan is conducting the mission unless an abnormal event occurs. One cannot help but wonder whether it is all right to keep the operations of SDF troops that involve such risks out of the public eye and not allow the Diet to be involved in the approval of the mission.
There is reportedly high demand for guarding U.S. military vessels. Questions remain as to whether the MSDF could be required to constantly guard U.S. military vessels. The government should exercise caution in deciding whether to carry out such missions.