Japan’s burgeoning amphibious warfare capability has been in the news lately, as Japanese troops have been exercising with U.S. Marines on the island of Guam. This is not exactly a new thing, and has been in the works for some time now. In fact, it probably would have been buried again had the exercises, planned months in advance, coincided with rising tensions over the Senkaku islands.

Marines have been banned in modern Japan because marines take things away from other countries. Like  aircraft carriers, they are considered tools of offensive warfare. That is, until Japan needs them. There are marines and there are marines, and Japan has decided that the kind of marines that land on Japanese territory to take them back are okay.

Western Army Infantry Regiment, Camp Pendleton, March 2011. Lisa Mizokami photo.

Japan has been worried about this exact same scenario playing out in the press — activists landing on an island — for nearly a decade. Or rather, they worry about armed activists, terrorists, or foreign troops dressed up as activists or terrorists landing on a Japanese island and illegally occupying it. For regular activists, there’s the Japan Coast Guard. But when the “activists” are equipped with automatic weapons and light support weapons, there must be ground self defense forces personnel trained in amphibious warfare.

Initial training in amphibious operations was undertaken by an unidentified GSDF brigade, possibly the 1st Combined (formerly 15th Brigade) on Okinawa. Eventually the Western Army Infantry Regiment, based in Nagasaki, was tasked the amphibious mission. The location ensures that the WAIR can be quickly embarked on MSDF ships at Nagasaki/Sasebo. The unit would probably be loaded onto one of three Oosumi-class Landing Ship, Tank vessels, which have well decks to accommodate small boats or hovercraft.

JS Shimokita, an Oosumi-class LST. The ship has a full-length flight deck (no hangar) and a well deck that can accommodate 2 LCAC hovercraft.

The Western Army Infantry Regiment is actually of battalion size, consisting of at least three–possibly four–infantry companies. The regiment has no vehicles except for small Toyota jeeps. One company per year is sent to San Diego in the spring for the annual “Iron Fist” exercises where they train with U.S. Marines in a variety of operations, from beach landings to passage of lines exercises. The exercises have been going on since 2006, so if an article tells you the Japanese are still picking up a lot of the basics, it’s probably off-base.

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. David Cleaves drives a Combat Inflatable Craft carrying Japanese soldiers during Exercise “Iron Fist” near Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif., Jan. 12, 2006.

The WAIR has only limited means for getting ashore. At this time they have only been photographed carrying out landings via Combat Inflatable Craft. The MSDF has Landing Craft, Medium and American-built Landing Craft Air Cushion hovercraft but lacking armored transport, the WAIR appears to favor stealth. Speaking of armored transport, Japan recently announced it is procuring four AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles of the kind the U.S. Marines use. Such vehicles would afford a platoon of WAIR troops armored protection up to and onto the beachhead.

The SDF is keeping the initial amphibious forces small because it doesn’t want to seem provocative, and because the islands it is training to recover are all fairly tiny. The SDF could buy enough AAVs to transport an entire company, but the islands are all so small a platoon could easily secure them.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 25, 2011) Sailors and Marines assist Soldiers from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, Western Army Infantry Regiment, in launching rigid-hull inflatable boats from the well deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8). Marines and Japanese soldiers are participating in Exercise Iron Fist, a bilateral training exercise to enhance their amphibious knowledge. (U.S. Navy photo by Aviation Structural Mechanic Airman Justin Joyner/Released)

That is, if the platoon doesn’t take too many casualties. Like a lot of SDF operations, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of redundancy built into Japan’s amphibious forces and plans. This is probably attributable to budgetary concerns, but also to Japan’s pacifist nature, and the idea that the minimum amount of force should be used to resolve a situation. As any student of amphibious warfare knows, casualties can mount up quickly. It’s not for nothing that the U.S. Marine Corps maintains a thirteen man rifle squad.

The WAIR is kind of a go-it-alone infantry force. It has no air support, except for machine guns mounted on JMSDF helicopters. It has no heavy vehicles except for the AAV-7s, which won’t be available for another year. Of course, armored vehicles could always be cross-attached to the WAIR, and it’s convenient that the new Type 10 tank maxes out at 44 tons and can be outfitted with a dozer plow.

C Company, Western Army Infantry Regiment. Camp Pendleton, March 2011. Photo by Lisa Mizokami.

I observed C Company, WAIR in the field in March of 2011 at Camp Pendleton. (See Part 1, 2, 3, 4.) They were sharp troops, very professional looking. Colonel Hudson, the 11th MEU commander, told me that he thought they were first-rate. C Company was in the States for a month, and most days were taken up by the training schedule. Will they perform their mission well? The GSDF has never been in combat. It’s hard to say. They seem to be well-trained, and are mentored by the most proficient amphibious force in the world. The odds are in their favor. Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.

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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