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Boost to SDF services' operational integration eyed amid altered security environment

In this July 11, 2017 file photo, the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF)'s helicopter carrier Kaga is seen in port at the MSDF's base in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture. (Mainichi)

The government will set a new medium-term plan to integrate the operations of Japan's Air, Ground and Maritime Self-Defense forces as early as next year, a government-related source told the Mainichi Shimbun on Aug. 6.

At the core of the plan will be strengthening Japan's ability to defend its far-flung island territories, and ballistic missile defense. The move to better integrate the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) will coincide with the coming revamp of the National Defense Program Guidelines and formulation of the Medium Term Defense Program.

The Joint Staff, which has overall control of SDF operations, draws up an operational program every fiscal year with the aim of unifying command of the forces. However, there has never been a medium-term plan to integrate the services.

With China flexing its muscles on the seas and North Korea continuing its ballistic missile development pace, and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump demanding its allies pick up more of the defense burden, the security environment around Japan has changed significantly. This had spurred calls to create a services integration plan with a longer-term view to coincide with the regular medium-term equipment procurement and force structure revisions.

Specifically, planners are pondering a "Japanese Marine Corps" -- a "quick response amphibious unit" within the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) to better the SDF's ability to defend Japan's many island possessions. On missile defense, the government is considering adopting the "Aegis Ashore" anti-missile system, a land-based version of the interceptor missiles aboard the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF)'s Aegis vessels. Both initiatives would require a far higher level of interservice coordination than exists at present.

The SDF integration plan will be "aimed at closing the gaps among the Ground, Maritime and Air Defense forces," and creating the kind of unitary operational capability called for by the current National Defense Program Guidelines, a source close to the Defense Ministry told the Mainichi.

The chief of the Joint Staff can issue commands directly to the MSDF's naval units and the Air Self-Defense Force's air units, but must issue orders to GSDF units via that service's five regional commands. Those five regional commands are, however, scheduled to be grouped under a "general ground command" by the end of this fiscal year, unifying the chain of command under the Joint Staff chief. The chance to implement operational integration plans for the SDF as a whole stems directly from this reform.

The current National Defense Program Guidelines and Medium Term Defense Program were confirmed by a December 2013 Cabinet decision, at the same time as the current National Security Strategy was finalized. The operational integration plan for the SDF will join these three documents as a foundational element in Japan's national security strategy.

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