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As Japan SDF's Mideast roles multiply, so do concerns over burden on patrol plane crews

In this Feb. 23, 2016 file photo, a Maritime Self-Defense Force member aboard a P-3C patrol aircraft monitors a ship near Cape Erimo in Hokkaido. (Mainichi/Naritake Machida)

TOKYO -- Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) figures are concerned about commencing the force's new intelligence-gathering mission in the rocky Middle East even as it continues its commitment to anti-piracy operations, as two MSDF P-3C patrol planes departed Okinawa for the region on Jan. 11.

In 2016, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter was on a P-3C patrol plane demonstration flight southeast of Cape Erimo in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. During the flight, the aircraft followed a ship while maintaining an altitude of roughly 150 meters, and shortly after, an ordnance officer declared the vessel to be "a cargo ship." This was followed by "No cargo," and "RS," short for "Russian ship." The unit combed the area, visually checking each and every vessel traversing the sea lane while taking photographs and recording data.

P-3C units are now engaged in this kind of mission as part of anti-pirate operations in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia. They search for suspicious ships from the air and provide information to MSDF escort vessels as well as to foreign naval and private ships. They apparently need to fly just out of the range of the pirates' rocket launchers. A Self-Defense Force (SDF) officer who has been deployed on the mission recalled, "It was tense, thinking that pirates might start shooting at us."

In addition to this existing mission, the MSDF P-3C units that left Japan on Jan. 11 for the Middle East will be responsible for intelligence-gathering to secure the safety of Japanese and Japan-related shipping. While the patrol aircraft will basically both operate in the same area, the crews will be required to assess the ships coming and going along the sea lane in very great detail.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved the latest deployment on the premise that the intelligence-gathering mission will be carried out "to an extent that would not interfere with the anti-pirate missions." A senior Defense Ministry official adds, "It's manageable, since many aspects of anti-piracy and intelligence-gathering tasks overlap."

One SDF pilot disagrees, however.

"Usually, we would never carry out two different tasks simultaneously on one flight," they told the Mainichi Shimbun. The pilot says that, in a scenario where the patrol unit confirms an imminent pirate takeover of one ship at the same time another Japan-affiliated vessel is attacked, "the crew will not be sure which one to prioritize. And they will be the ones responsibile for making the final call. Is it even justifiable to place such a burden on the captain?"

Furthermore, since the number of ships subject to monitoring will rise sharply, the time spent on pre- and post-flight briefings will double, increasing the crews' workload.

An SDF official who has been deployed to the area expressed concern, saying, "Chances of failure increases when there are two tasks involved."

(Japanese original by Naritake Machida, City News Department)

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