JS Bungo, a Uraga-class minesweeper tender. Via Globalsecurity.org.

Last year, for the first time Japan deployed a MSDF vessel in support of the U.S. Navy’s annual Pacific Partnership program. JS Kunisaki, an Ohsumi-class LST, was loaded with doctors, nurses, dentists, and engineers and sent to follow USNS Mercy as she worked her way from the South Pacific to Southeast Asia. Together the two ships dispensed free medical, dental, veterinary, and engineering help to remote, impoverished communities.

According to the Ministry of Defense, Japan’s participation in Pacific Partnership will continue this year. 30-40 medical personnel, a minesweeper-tender type vessel, and ASDF aircraft will participate. The Ministry of Defense is also recruiting up to 30 Japanese NGO members to tag along. The MoD expects to be in East Timor from June 24th to July 14th, and Micronesia from July 15th to August 3rd.

A minesweeper tender vessel could only mean one of the Uraga class. There are two ships in the Uraga class, Uraga and Bungo. Displacing an average of 5,675 tons each, the ships are 140 meters long and have a crew of 160. Both ships are outfitted with a 76mm gun on the bow, as well as mine-laying equipment. A minesweeper tender is not the ideal choice: the ships lack the well decks and larger helicopter pads of the Ohsumi-class. Without landing craft or LCAC hovercraft, a Uraga-class vessel will have a more difficult time getting a heavier presence ashore. Uragas also sport a rather conspicuous 76mm Oto-Melera cannon on the bow, which is incongruous for such a peaceful mission. (The same criticism could be made when the U.S. Navy used Austin-class LPDs in the Pacific Partnership program, but the sheer size of the Austins tended to dwarf any obvious armament.)

Why not an Ohsumi-class LST again? Good question. There are, after all, three of them, and Japan does not maintain at-sea amphibious forces like the U.S. Navy. The reason is unknown but the choice of a minesweeper tender (made before the Tohoku earthquake) may help preserve the Pacific Partnership mission as the Ohsumi ships are being used in earthquake relief.

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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 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch