Since the end of the Cold War, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces have slowly been acquiring new roles and missions. Ballistic missile defense, anti-piracy at the Horn of Africa, refueling NATO ships in the Indian Ocean, not to mention dealing with the rise of a belligerent China. The MSDF is facing a more diverse set of challenges farther from Japan than at any time since, well…anyway. I digress.

Despite the new challenges, the MSDF has been slow to change. In the last twenty years, the biggest changes to the force structure have been the introduction of the Kongo-class BMD destroyers, and the Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers. This isn’t all that surprising though; navies are inherently conservative organizations. Change is coming, but very slowly.

What if we could speed it up a bit? Rearrange the fleet in a way that we thought was more tailored to Japan’s new realities? Let’s play a game: build your own Maritime Self Defense Forces.

Ground rules of the game:

- To simplify things, we’ll operate with a budget of tonnage rather than yen. You can order anything you want, but your budget is 392,000 ship tons, which is the current size of the MSDF.

- Article 9 still in place, but modified to allow hypothetical “self-defense air control destroyers” (fixed-wing aircraft carriers) and amphibious warfare vessels for defensive purposes.

- Collective defense is now authorized, so you can think about MSDF ships interoperating with the U.S. 7th Fleet.

- Only Tier 1 ships are available; those are the newest classes in the fleet. Tiers 2 and 3 — the ships that are grayed out — are typically at least 20 years old and are only represented to illustrate the current MSDF force.

Here’s a list of ships currently in the MSDF inventory, plus a number of other ship types built by other countries that have been proposed for Japan.

Your Choices

# In Class Ship Type Class Tonnage (Full) Tonnage Class, JMSDF
2 DDH w/Helicopter (Large) (Tier 2) Hyuga 19,000 38000
2 DDH w/Helicopter (Small) (Tier 2) Shirane 7,500 15,000
2 DDG Aegis w/Helicopter (Tier 1) Atago 10000 20000
4 DDG Aegis (Tier 1) Kongo 9,500 38,000
2 DDG (Tier 2) Hatakaze 4,700 9,400
6 DD w/Helicopter (Tier 1) Akizuki/Takanami 6,800 38,800
9 DD w/Helicopter (Tier 2) Murasame 6,100 54,900
6 DD w/Helicopter (Tier 3) Asagiri 4,900 29,400
9 DD w/Helicopter (Tier 3) Hatsuyuki 3,000 27,000
6 DDE w/Helicopter Abakuma 2,500 15,000
15 SSK (Tier 1) Soryu / Oyashio 4,000-4,200 60800
1 SSK (Tier 2) Harushio 2,700 2,700
Small Surface Combatant
6 Patrol Boat, Guided Missile (Tier 1) Hayabusa 250 1,500
Amphibious Warfare
3 Landing Ship, Tank (Tier 1) Osumi 14,000 42,000
Total Tonnage 392,500
Small Surface Combatant
Littoral Combat Ship w/Helicopter USS Independence 2,700
Joint High Speed Vehicle USNS Spearhead 1,500
Guided Missile Corvette Braunchsweig 1,800
Stealth Corvette Visby 650
Support Ship, w/Helicopter Absalon 6,000
SSN Virginia 7,800
Hospital Ship Type 920 14,000
Landing Helicopter, Dock Mistral 21,300
V/STOL Aircraft Carrier USS America
Fixed Wing Aircraft Carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth
Visby-class corvette _toy-only RotF Autobot Depthcharge_s alt mode_

Visby-class stealth corvette.

I’ll go first. Here’s my ideal JMSDF.

My national security strategy for Japan is to grow the Japanese economy and increase Japan’s diplomatic weight abroad. The JMSDF will support that by defending the Home Islands and the sea and air links connecting Japan to the rest of the world. It will support that by being affordable, operating with the same yen/ton level as it does today. The JMSDF’s HA/DR force will improve Japan’s image in the world and give Japan a minor force projection capability, primarily for defensive reasons.

Therefore, I want a JMSDF optimized for four missions: defending against BMDs, keeping Japan’s sea lanes open, contesting China’s claim to the East China Sea, and a soft/hard power force built for humanitarian missions and amphibious warfare.

Mission #1, BMD defense. Here I like where Japan is going, except I’m going to ignore the Kirishima class; I don’t really see the point of having helicopters on BMD ships.

Mission #2, convoy duty. Japan nearly starved when the Allies cut its sea lines of communication. Japan’s sea lanes have to be kept open at all costs. Still, it’s a secondary battle because if the ships in Mission #3 can aggressively keep the enemy bottled up north of Taiwan, the sea lanes don’t face a lot of pressure. And as long as the U.S. is an ally, Japan can never be really cut off from the outside world.

Mission #3, Anti-Access/Area Denial vs. China. I want small, powerful surface and sub-surface ships capable of scattering throughout the East China Sea, particularly in and around the Senkaku Islands, capable of hiding and ambushing any Chinese attempt to force passage. I want small amphibious transports capable of rapidly moving the GSDF around. I want to be able to construct a mobile, stealthy defense with these ships so that a Chinese admiral is never sure where the MSDF is.

Aside from the submarines, Mission #3 is easily the smallest force. It really doesn’t take much to keep the Chinese out of the Senkakus in a meaningful way.

Mission #4, Hard/Soft Power: I want the ability to project soft power throughout the Asia-Pacific in the manner of Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief. I also want the ability to rapidly assist areas of Japan affected by earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. And, I want the ability to move a battalion of naval infantry/marines.

Fortunately for Japan, the United States has proven that amphibious warfare ships are ideal HA/DR platforms.

My Fleet

# Ships in Class Ship Type Class Tonnage (Full) Tonnage Class
 6  Aegis destroyers Kongo 9500 57000
 14  DD Takanami 6800 95200
 12  DE Abakuma 2500 30000
20 SSK Soryu/Oyashio 4200 84000
Small Surface Combatant
7 Littoral Combat Ship USS Independence  2700 18900
10 Stealth Corvette Visby 650 6500
2 Landing Helicopter, Dock Mistral 21300 42600
2 Landing Ship, Tank Osumi 14000 28000
1 Hospital Ship Type 920 14000 14000
4 Inter-Theater Sealift JHSV 1500 6000
Total 395900
Joint High Speed Vehicle. Via Austal.

Joint High Speed Vehicle. Via Austal.

Breakdown by mission:

Mission #1: Anti-Access/Area Denial

# Ships in Class Ship Type Class
22 SSK Soryu/Oyashio
10 Stealth Corvette Visby
4 Inter-Theater Sealift JHSV
7 Littoral Combat Ship USS Independence

I have scattered 17 small surface ships armed with anti-ship missiles and attack submarines throughout the East China Sea. Combined with mines, drones, and fixed-wing patrol aircraft, the Ryukyus are now closed to hostile traffic. No Chinese admiral is going to risk sortieing a large task force through the Miyako Straits without knowing exactly where those ships are.

Mission #2: Ballistic Missile Defense

# Ships in Class Ship Type Class
6 Aegis Destroyer Kongo
6 DD Takanami

6 Aegis ships means I have 2 on standby at all times, each with an escort of a conventional destroyer. In a crisis that could surge to 4-6 Aegis destroyers, providing redundancy and extending coverage to the Senkakus.

Mission #3: Sea Lane Defense

# Ships in Class Ship Type Class
8 DD Takanami
12 DE Abakuma

Twenty ships will give me five escort squadrons of 4 ships each, which is a 40% reduction from the current force. That 40% reduction went to attack submarines, stealth corvettes, and littoral combat ships.

Mission #4: Soft Power/Amphibious

# Ships in Class Ship Type Class
2 Landing Helicopter, Dock Mistral
2 Landing Ship, Tank Osumi
1 Hospital Ship Type 920

In ordinary times, my JMSDF will send a LST and hospital ship on goodwill tours  tours of southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. In domestic disasters, having two mobile helicopter decks will be very useful — as USS Essex and USS Ronald Reagan were during Operation Tomodachi. In wartime, I can reinforce or take back far-flung Japanese territory.


- I have a lot of misgivings about this force, chiefly that I don’t have enough destroyers. I slashed the MSDF destroyer force, which has fluctuated from 40-60 vessels over the past thirty years, to 32. I’m concerned that I don’t have enough destroyers for sea lane protection.

- I have no interest in “Helicopter Destroyers”. If I’m getting a big ship like Hyuga I want a well deck, and if Japan can have LSTs with well decks, I don’t see any reason why procuring a Mistral-type LHD would be  unreasonable in Japan’s political climate. In fact, aside from amphibious vessels, I pretty much have no interest in any ship that carries more than one helicopter.

- I have no interest in fixed-wing aircraft carriers, either. An aircraft carrier would be useful for putting a mobile airfield at Japan’s peripheries, but the cost is just prohibitive. If you assume tons = ¥, then the tonnage of an aircraft carrier eats up your budget very quickly. Ask the Royal Navy about that one.

Got another idea? Go for it and post in comments. Remember, define the strategy first, then assemble the fleet. Good luck, and Japan expects you to do your duty.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch