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.

Puheloinen and NATO

The Finnish Chief of Defence*, General Ari Puheloinen, held the opening speech at the 208th National Defence Courset his week (20.1). The speech was widely reported in Swedish media with the headline: “Finnish C-in-C says no to NATO”. To put this statement into context, a recent study (14.01) showed that a majority of the Finnish officers supported the idea of Finland joining the alliance, with the higher-ranking officers (Colonels and above) being more in favor than the lower ranks.

The speech is found in its entirety on the Finnish Defence Forces home page in the form it was given (mostly in Finnish, with a brief ending paragraph in Swedish).

Puheloinen begins by talking about the defence cuts that are taking place, and the consequences they have had to date. He praises “his” personnel, and talks about the need to reform the defence forces as the organization changes. He also takes care to point out that the number of Generals is being lowered correspondingly, and that Finland has a rather low ratio of higher officers compared to other countries.

After this more or less expected introduction, he restates his point from a national defence course held back in 2012: If the defence budget is not raised by 2015, Finland will no longer have a credible defence by 2020. This is where he mentions NATO, once in the whole speech. “Being a member of NATO would not solve this challenge.” (fi. “Naton jäsenyys ei ratkaisisi tätä haastetta.”), after which he moves on and continues to note that neither will collaboration amongst the Nordic countries. However, Puheloinen states, we should still cooperate even if we didn’t experience financial troubles, as it has several benefits. The Finnish-Swedish relationship has received much attention recently, and is brought up as a prime example of this kind of work. In Puheloinen’s view, it is important that it is based on common needs and interests, and that both the contribution and benefits are shared equally by both participants. In spite of our differences, he strongly believes that fitting areas of collaboration will be found.

However, he also warns against expecting that all joint projects will bring financial savings, and cautions that although joint procurements are often brought forward as possible examples of collaboration, they are in fact amongst the hardest to coordinate (for an excellent summary of recent joint procurements by the Swedish armed forces, read this excellent post by Skipper).

To sum it all up, he ends by noting that “Through collaboration between Finland and Sweden it is possible to achieve good results, but it will require time, patience, being ready to move forward one small step at a time, and being prepared to make compromises.”

I noted with delight that he also brings up the importance of reservists, and that the training of these will again be brought up to the “appropriate” level.

I believe that interpreting Puheloinen’s statement as being a no to NATO is to read too much into the single sentence. Rather, I believe it is a reminder to our politicians that joining NATO will not make the need for defence spendings go away. I personally think it is a good speech. Puheloinen manages to take up several current issues in a short time, and he continues his custom of honestly and clearly speaking about the needs of the defence forces, in spite of the no doubt considerable political pressure to accept further cuts.

*Contrary to what some Swedish sources stated, Gen Puheloinen is in fact not the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces, a position held by the President of Finland.


To begin with I must say that I am positively surprised by the amount of interest this blog has stirred during these few days. I hope you will keep finding my post interesting. No small part in the number of views is thanks to James Mashiri over at Random thoughts, a warm “Thank you” to James. And do go check out his blog if you haven’t already, it is one of the best out there  dealing with Finnish defense questions.

The big thing happening in Europe right now is obviously the development in Ukraine, which every day is looking more like an attempted revolution and less like a demonstration. The situation is a prime example of the problematic situation when a, more or less, democratically elected government acts in undemocratic ways. To make matters worse, the easy solution, early elections, would apparently only result in more or less the same result as the last one (and even if the opposition would win, a western-style, non-corrupt government is far from guaranteed), meaning that a kind of a stalemate is born. The situation is not unlike what e.g. Thailand and Egypt are experiencing, but also Turkey seems to be heading in the same direction. Ukraine, settled on the frontier between EU and Russia, is however very important for the future of Europe and the EU, meaning that we as Europeans cannot afford to ignore the developments there. The situation is receiving surprisingly little coverage in mainstream media. A more thorough analysis of the situation would be needed, however, I am willingly admitting that my knowledge of the country and its internal politics is way to meager to be the one to write this analysis.

If someone knows of a good round-up of the current situation, and the likely outcomes, please let me know, I would very much like to dig deeper into this.