Osumi-class LST Shimokita.

In a lot of ways, the Maritime Self Defense Force is already well equipped to carry a Japanese amphibious force. The MSDF amphibious forces order of battle currently looks like this:

  • 3 Osumi-class Landing Ship, Tank ships
  • 4 LCUs (Landing Craft, Utility)
  • 12 LCMs (Landing Craft, Medium)
  • 6 LCACs (Landing Craft, Air Cushion)

This gives Japan an overall capability of lifting about the equivalent of a battalion–provided all the ships are available at once. Not bad for a military that doesn’t even have an amphibious doctrine or even marine troops, but it does have limitations. For example, the Osumi LSTs, although having a large flight deck, have no hangar.

Things are about to improve, though, with the introduction of the 22DDH ships. These ships, designed to conduct anti-submarine warfare, could be used to to embark a Japanese Marine Corps (JMC) battalion and accompanying helicopters. (In fact, that might probably a better use of a 20,000 ton hull than using it to chase submarines.) They will also have a hangar.

The JMC’s mission will be to retake islands away from an enemy and some of those islands are rather small. If the JMC conducts smaller operations–say, with a battalion–it would make sense to build smaller ships to carry smaller troop complements–say, a company at a time. An adversary with a high number of missile carrying aircraft and small boats could create a very lethal environment for a personel-heavy force to operate in. If an infantry-heavy landing force departs from Yokosuka under great fanfare only to be completely destroyed when their only transport ship is sunk, well, that would be kind of embarrassing, wouldn’t it?

Joint High Speed Vehicle. Via Austal.

The Joint High Speed Vessel offers some intriguing opportunities for the MSDF. The Pentagon is buying 10 JHSVs, and anticipates an overall buy of 28. At 338 feet long, it can carry up to 300 U.S. Marines for up to four days, and can even accommodate M-1 Abrams tanks. Japan needs several of these ships.

A larger ship, the 22DDH, could serve as the command and control platform and helicopter carrier, while the marine ground element could be spread out across several JHSVs. In a landing operation the helicopters would depart from the 22DDH, rendezvous with the JHSVs, embark infantry, and then ferry them to the landing zone.

Spreading out the marine element among multiple smaller ships reduces risk. If any one ship goes down, it doesn’t cripple the entire expeditionary force. If the 22DDH is sunk, the helicopters are lost, but the ground forces are preserved, and JHSVs can still perform a landing at a pier or seawall.

Landing Platform, Helicopter USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2)

This plan would require reworking the 22DDH as a landing platform, helicopter, along the lines of the old USS Iwo Jima-class ships. But considering that few if any infantry would not actually be embarked upon them, that could probably be done with minimal, if any, modifications. The important thing is that they be configured to carry helicopters, and that’s entirely the point of their design.

A Battalion Landing Team, reinforced with a company of mechanized infantry/tanks, would need a mix something like this:

  • 1 22DDH (helicopter element, task force headquarters, special forces, medical)
  • 4 JHSVs (1 for battalion headquarters company, 1 per line company)
  • 2 Osumi-class LSTs w/ 2 LCAC each (13 vehicle mechanized company + 4 vehicle tank platoon + recovery, engineering vehicles)

Additional ships might be configured to carry fire support, medical facilities, supplies, or any number of other useful things. In the “off-season” they could be used as soft power ships, delivering aid and expertise to developing nations.

So, there you go. The great thing about this plan is that Japan has already done all the hard work. It has already built or is in the process of building the larger ships. It already has the helicopters and experience operating them at sea. It’s already spent the big money. Now, all it needs are the smaller, inexpensive ships. The result would be a powerful, flexible amphibious lift capability.

Other posts in the series:

1. Thoughts on a Japanese Marine Corps, #1: Do Japanese Marines need naval aviation?

2. Thoughts on a Japanese Marine Corps, #2: What would it look like?

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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