Following the attack on a Japanese tanker in the Malacca Straits last month, the Sankei reports that the government is considering allowing armed guards on Japanese ships in response to the shifting piracy threat and in line with international trends:

Government considering ‘armed guards’ on Japanese ships to counter piracy

Somalian pirates have proved adaptable in their response to increased international anti-piracy operations

Somalian pirates have proved adaptable in their response to increased international anti-piracy operations (Source: Abbie Gadd © Crown Copyright/MOD 2011)

The government began investigating placing armed Japanese Maritime Self-Defense or Coast Guard members on civilian ships registered in Japan traveling through areas suffering from repeated piracy, in an effort to strengthen piracy counter-measures in the seas off Somalia, it was learned on Oct 21. Somalian pirates are active from the seas off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea in the east and off the coast of Kenya to the south. With Japanese and international vessels on patrol in the region unable to escort every vessel, the new proposal for the use of armed guards was floated.

With the aim of bringing in armed guards, the Ministry of Defense is launching an investigation to consider amending the Piracy Countermeasures Law, which is the basis for the dispatch of MSDF ships for escort duty in the Gulf of Aden. As the escort vessels have eight Coast Guard members aboard, the Coast Guard is also investigating placing its members aboard civilian ships.

 Currently, the MSDF has two escort vessels operating in the Gulf of Aden, escorting vessels across a 900km zone, with P3C patrol planes providing reconnaissance and surveillance. The US, UK, France and other nations have dispatched naval escorts and patrol planes of their own.

While the MSDF and other military forces have strengthened protection in the Gulf of Aden, causing the Somalian pirates to move from the Gulf of Aden and to begin targeting civilian vessels in the Arabian Sea and off Kenya. According to the Tokyo-based Japanese Shipowners Association, while piracy is declining the the Gulf of Aden, it is booming in these other locations. In 2010 and 2011, there have been over 144 confirmed incidents in these areas.

To match the movement of pirate activity, international military forces must themselves move, creating a vicious circle in which the pirates respond by migrating elsewhere. Because of this, as putting military personnel aboard vessels is the most effective countermeasure, France and the Netherlands have already put armed guards on their ships, and Italy will begin doing so at the end of this month. Aboard US vessels, private military contractors already provided armed escorts.

Civilians are not allowed to carry their own weapons aboard Japanese ships, so the Shipowners Association and Federation of Economic Organizations has strongly appealed for the government to place MSDF or Coast Guard members aboard these vessels.

Within the government, plans to put several personnel aboard each ship, as other nations have done, have been considered valid, and it is assumed that personnel from the MSDF’s Special Boarding Unit might be seconded.

Nevertheless, there are challenges. A specialist in the piracy issue, Tokai University Prof. Yoshihiko Yamada points out, “International standards for armed guards have not been established,” there are some nations which do not allow the passage of ships carrying armed personnel through their waters. There is also a concern that responding to pirate raids with force will significantly increase the risk that the personnel aboard these civilian vessels might be hurt.

It seems unlikely that this will progress very far due to the difficulties mentions in the final paragraph as well as  fact that the Special Boarding Unit is made up of only around 70 members. It seems unlikely that the Coast Guard or MSDF will be fielding anyone with only basic weapons training for what is likely to be an assignment with very little chance of reinforcement and at high risk of escalation.

If the government can loosen the restrictions on weapons aboard Japanese ships, shipping operators could look to private military contractors instead of government forces – which is probably better for all parties concerned (and may even give SDF personnel an extra option post-retirement).

[Thanks to @JS_Susumu of Surveillance to Go Nowhere for the link]

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch