Japanese (self-) defense forces in Djibouti

It is well known that a number of different units and vessels from several nations are deployed to the area surrounding Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Of the “major players”, one of the less well known is Japan, which has set up a continuing presence under the “Japanese Facility for Counter-Piracy Mission in Djibouti”.

JS Samidare (DD-106) Wikimedia Commons/USN

The unit made it to the news earlier this year when they played an important part in the interception of a dhow used by Somali pirates. Although the interception and boarding of the dhow was carried out by the Operation Atalanta flagship FS Siroco (L 9012), the dhow was, according to the official homepage of the EU NAVFOR, initially located by  a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft and a helicopter from the Japanese vessel JS Samidare (DD-106), which operates in associated support to the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF/CTF 151).

The Japanese maritime patrol aircraft mentioned was one of the sizeable fleet of P-3C Orion’s operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s air arm, while the helicopter was a SH-60 Seahawk (of the J- or K-version). In keeping with Japanese customs, both are manufactured locally, by Kawasaki and Mitsubishi respectively. As mentioned, the Seahawk’s operate from the Japanese Murasame-class destroyer JS Samidare (eng. ‘Spring rain’). The rather modern outfit of the Japanese units in the area is somewhat in contrast to the French, who apparently sent an aging Alouette III-helicopter to the scene.

The intercepted dhow with the French boarding team and an Aéronavale Alouette III hovering nearby. © eunavfor.eu

The job apparently went well, and the NAVFOR has published some nice pictures of the boarding on their homepage. More interesting than the raid itself, however, is the presence of Japanese fixed-wing assets in the area.

As an effect of WWII, Japan has an anti-militaristic constitution, with the famous article 9 stating that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained“. Still, the use of “Self-defense forces” as opposed to simply “Defense forces” in the name does not hide the fact that Japan has a well-equipped defense force. A more concrete effect has been the reluctance to participate in operations abroad, with the first Japanese peace-keeping deployment taking place only back in 1992, when a non-combatant force was sent to Cambodia as part of the UNTAC. However, during the last twenty years, a rapid shift in policy has taken place, and in recent years the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone so far as to publicly call for Article 9 to be removed.

This is where the Japanese Facility for Counter-Piracy Mission in Djibouti comes in. Even if the word ‘Base’ is avoided (apparently due to article 9) it is very clear that with the creation of the facility back in 2011, for the first time since WWII, Japan has set up a military base in foreign territory. The counter-piracy operation consists of a destroyer, Orion’s operating from the base, and the Japanese Special Boarding Unit (the navy’s elite unit modeled after SBS and the SEAL). In itself, the base is rather unspectacular, both France and the USA have armed forces based in Djibouti, but its symbolic value is high enough for Abe to visit it in August last year.

The thing to remember is that all this is happening against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Far East. The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute that flared up last year is still simmering, and only this week China and Malaysia had a quarrel over a Chinese report on a naval maneuver that was supposedly held in disputed waters at the James Shoal in the South China Sea. Both South Korea and China have been eyeing the rising Japanese self-esteem with worry, while South Korea and Japan share a common mistrust against the growing Chinese ambitions (supported by a rapidly growing modern navy). It remains to be seen whether South Korea and Japan will find each other as allies due to their common fear of China, or if the memory of the Japanese occupation still is too fresh. Rising energy prices and a stalling Japanese economy might easily tip the country into trying to tighten their grip of disputed oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea, something that naturally could lead to clashes with China as it aspires to become a ‘true’ superpower.

Leanders take up positions

This morning a headline proclaiming the deployment of frigates to the southern coast by the Indonesian navy in response to Australian intrusions caught my eye.

The background to this is the Australian Operation Sovereign Borders, an effort to “combat people smuggling and protect Australia’s borders.” The tougher Australian stance on asylum seekers have created headlines both at home and abroad, and in an effort to try turn home the asylum seekers and their boats as close to their departure destination as possible Royal Australian Navy and custom’s vessels now patrol close to the Indonesian shore.

The latest spat comes after the government on a press conference last Friday (17/1/2014) admitted to breaching the Indonesian territorial waters on five instances, and extended their apologies. The ships in question were both naval vessels and a custom’s ship.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told the reporters that they “deeply regret these events”, and that Julie Bishop, the Australian Foreign Minister, already had offered “an unqualified apology on behalf of the Australian government” to her Indonesian counterpart, adding that the Australian embassy in Jakarta would make a formal apology the very same day. However, he also maintained that all the breaches happened unintentionally, and in violation of Australian policy.

As stated earlier, the Indonesian reaction was anything but understanding, and by dispatching the largest surface combatants the navy have, one or several of the Ahmad Yani class frigates, to the scene of the intrusions, it has sent a sharp signal to the Australians not to repeat the violations.

Indonesian Leander-class frigate KRI Karel Satsuit Tubin (KST 356) in 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons/USN

However, the reasoning behind the sending of the frigates is rather uncertain. One of the Australian ships in the area was the ANZAC/MEKO 200-class HMAS Stuart (FFH 153), a 3 600 t (full load) frigate, and the most capable surface ships in Australian service. There might be a perceived need to match this ship, frigate to frigate. However, the Ahmad Yani-class are the last of the British Leander class ships left in service (being the ex-Dutch van Speijk-class). Although a highly capable and successful ship in the 1960’s, it is by now a dated design, and although the ships have been modernized, it is a far cry from its Australian counterparts. It is also a considerably smaller vessel, at just over 2 800 t (full load), and it is highly questionable whether the ship even can match the flank speed of the HMAS Stuart, if the Australians would find their possible escort to be unsettling.

A more logical step would have been to employ some of the ocean-going patrol vessels the Indonesian navy operates, or, if there is a perceived need for heavier armament, the fast attack crafts or corvettes that are of a decidedly more modern design than the frigates.

The point of the operation might well be to impress the Indonesian government and general population more than to deter the Australians. The Indonesian navy is in expansion, with the steel-cutting ceremony of the first new SIGMA 10514 PKR Frigate being held only last week, and the Indonesian defense minister expressing their interest in Club S armed Project 636 Improved Kilo-class submarines earlier this month. However, it has also suffered embarrassing setbacks, including its latest trimaran FAC KRI Klewang (625) catching fire and sinking in September 2012, less than a month after its launch. It is also unclear wether the Indonesian navy had noticed the intrusions, or if the Australian apology was the first sign of it. Getting the chance to show the usefulness of its heavier units, possibly with the opportunity to get some nice pictures of an Indonesian frigate escorting a RAN vessel close to the border, might just be the boost the navy’s reputation needs.