A Type-87 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun travels slowly from Higashi-Chitose to Tomakomai

A Type-87 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun travels slowly from Higashi-Chitose to Tomakomai (Source: 47 News)

Last night, a convoy of military hardware traveled from Higashi-Chitose to Tomakomai in Hokkaido on their way Kyushu. With the tracked vehicles running on rubber treads, they were forced to travel at 10-20 km/h, extending the 30 km journey into a couple of hours.

Today, November 7th, the vehicles will board a privately chartered ferry – the Natchan World, a high-speed catamaran operating in the Tsugaru Straits between Aomori and Hakodate, Hokkaido – and set sail for Oita, Kyushu. A Daily Yomiuri article from October 27th highlights the use of civilian transportation by the GSDF Northern Army’s 7th Division in ferrying their equipment down to Hijudai in Oita Prefecture:

Together with the Type 89 infantry combat vehicles, the Type 90 tanks will be transported from Tomakomai Port in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, to Oita Port in Oita Prefecture from Nov. 8 aboard the chartered Natchan World catamaran ferry.

The about 10,715-ton high-speed vessel is operated by Tsugarukaikyo Ferry Co., based in Hakodate, Hokkaido. After the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, the ferry was used to transport SDF members and emergency relief materials.

The Type 73 armored personnel carriers will be transported by Japan Freight Railway Co. freight trains from Sapporo Freight Terminal Station to Nishi-Oita Station in Oita next Thursday.

Why use civilian transportation?

On JSW’s last post on the issue, commenter Robert asks why the SDF aren’t using an Oosumi-class transport, which would have been good joint operational practice. A good question, and I think the reason could be one of three causes or a combination of any.  First, the closest port to Hijudai where the exercise is being held is the civilian port of Oita, and having SDF ships docking at civilian ports is a serious political issue in Japan, see for example the protests planned over the use of Tomakomai over this very journey. There is an MSDF base in Saiki much further south, but it would double the travel distance once the tanks disembark, as the map shows below. Given the speed constraints in place when they tanks have rubber treads and the noise reduction methods need to keep the civilian population happy,  it is just unfeasible to have them trundle the 70-odd miles it would take.

[cetsEmbedGmap src=http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=215299861823771183255.0004b0f9bf772fa5968cf&msa=0&ll=33.1479,131.689682&spn=0.435199,1.056747 width=545 height=400 marginwidth=0 marginheight=0 frameborder=0 scrolling=no]

The other two reasons are that this is journey solely for the purpose of an exercise, i.e. not joint, thus it is being kept within the GSDF, and that it is probably cheaper for the Northern Army to hire a boat already docked in Hakodate, like the Natchan, than to call up an MSDF Oosumi-class vessel from Kure. The final issue is that the Natchan is much faster – almost doubly so, depending on the load (see below for the Natchan specs, and here for the Oosumi). The SDF has not released anything to suggest why the Natchan has been chosen, to my knowledge, but these are the best guesses I have.

Furthermore, with the so-called “Nansei shift” called for by the National Defense Program Guidelines for FY2011 and beyond, released last year, under which the SDF will turn more of its attention to Japan’s southwest, it seems that such transportation deals will become increasingly important for maintaining operational readiness for the most heavily armored units in the North.

b. Response to attacks on off-shore islands
The SDF will permanently station the minimum necessary units on off-shore islands where the SDF is not currently stationed. Also, the SDF will enhance its capability to respond to attacks on those islands and ensure the security of the surrounding sea and air space by securing bases, mobility, transport capacity and effective countermeasures necessary for conducting operations against such attacks.

- National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) for FY2011 and Beyond     [emphasis mine]

The SDF does not have the transport capacity to operate in this fashion, nor the money to develop it. In August, the Ministry of Defense reported on how it might implement the ‘dynamic defense’ concept espoused in the NDPG, suggesting that it would consider utilizing private transportation for island defense, quick response and disaster relief.

The Tohoku Earthquake is a clear precedent: the SDF found itself exploiting US military logistics as well as chartering civilian vessels, including the Natchan World, which was used to transport SDF members and relief supplies to Honshu from Hokkaido.

Australian-built ships are among this number, playing their own part in the relief effort. 
 Both Aomori on Honshu and Hakodate on Hokkaido, the traditional home ports for Incat-built 112 metre catamaran Natchan World, have been hectic. The Hokkaido government has been sending supply and personnel to the region and scenes at the ferry terminal there revealed the scale of the operation to move freight across Tsugaru Strait for onward travel to the worst affected areas.

The Natchan World has been operating for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, making three round trips per day to transport soldiers and their vehicles. Her role is the latest humanitarian deployment for large high speed lightweight catamarans.

 - Incat: “Australian Ships Play Their Part In Japanese Recovery”

You can see the SDF loading onto the Natchan World in the video above.

Natchan World and Rera

Magazines featuring Natchan WorldThe Natchan World and its twin, the Natchan Rera, have been watched carefully by defense nerds over the past few months, appearing in at least three recent magazines -  Ships of the World and SDF 2035 Equipment Catalog (shown right) and most recently in a magazine which pits the SDF against the Chinese military (not shown). With the MoD’s decision to consider the use of civilian vessels, Natchan seemed like a logical choice.

The Ships of the World (Seikai no Kansen) article – ‘Japan’s Structural Reform of Defense Capability and High-speed Ferry “Natchan”‘ by Yukinori Togo – is particularly informative, comparing the Natchan to the JHSV concept under development by the US military. Two designs were submitted in the JHSV competition, one by Austal and General Dynamics, another by Bollinger and Incat – the Australian company that built both Natchan World and Rera. The Austal vessel won the competition and the USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) is one of Military Sealift Command’s latest toys.

Here are the specs for both vessels as listed in the article put together for easy comparison:

Natchan Specifications JHSV Specifications
Length: 112 m 137 m
Width: 30.5 m 32 m
Draft: 3.93 m (max) 4.57 m
Max. speed: 39 knots over 35 knots
Payload: 1380 metric tons (max) 600 metric tons (without fuel)
Additional notes: Hull material: aluminum base alloy Cruising distance: 1200 NMCrew: 37 membersDeck area: 1858 square meters [can carry M-1A2 tank (63 tons) / landing of Black Hawk helos]# of chairs: 312; # of beds: 150; # of seats in cafeteria: 60Ramp: intersecting angle, 40 degrees

The two Natchan were taken off regular ferry services in November 2009, and their operator Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry have not disclosed why. They are only put into use during the peak season, three weeks from July 29th to August 16th. Togo sees a chance for Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry to get put the ferry into use, should the SDF charter the ship:

Natchan World - 7th Division's ferry to Oita

Natchan World - 7th Division's ferry to Oita (Source: Shipspotting.com/© Theo Van Loon)

The biggest difference between JHSV and Natchan is that Natchan does not have a helo pad and a vehicle on/offload ramp. Without the ramp, it is difficult to offload vehicles from piers that do not have appropriate equipment — which means Natchan won’t fully carry out her capabilities as a transportation vessel. I heard that there is a plan for the U.S. military to provide a special ramp they utilized to load JHSV. If that occurs, Natchan will possess almost of all of JHSV’s features except the helo pad.

To secure the means to carry out dynamic defense, it is critical to be mobile in every way. It is only a matter of time that JHSV’s will become an integral part of all military organizations in the world — it’s mobile, it’s fast, and it’s convenient. If JSDF decides to utilize JHSV, JMSDF will more than likely be the operational owner. However, considering the current fiscal constraints, it would be difficult for JMSDF to operate a JHSV in addition to its OSUMI-class LSTs. So another thought is to add the vehicle on/offload ramp to Natchan and utilize within the realm of the JSDF’s Joint Command, fully manned by personnel under the Joint Command. Excluding members to man the shop, Natchan will only require 9 people to operate (4 officers to include the ship’s Captain and engineer, deck crew, and mechanics). Even if it were to only make one round trip a day, that is still an amazingly small crew to operate such a large vessel. If it is chartered, the government can cut costs significantly in comparison to owning it, yet the return on investment is high considering the capacity is essentially equal to JHSV, as well as to gain experience in operating a fast speed transportation vessel.

Natchan is a civilian vessel so it is not built to withstand battle, but neither is JHSV. Perhaps some are concerned that Natchan would be a prime target for pirates. However, as stated in the plan, civilian vessels will be considered in the framework of transportation, and restrictive measures will be taken. I genuinely look forward to the implementation of HSV’s to JSDF operations. For starters, Natchan can be chartered and tested for feasibility. It is clear that JSDF cannot fulfill all the operational demands with its current forces, capabilities, and fiscal condition. We must think out of the box and be willing to tap into the civilian infrastructure to fill the void we currently have. Let’s hope Natchan becomes the pilot case in exploring such possibilities.

- Japan’s Structural Reform of Defense Capability and High-speed Ferry “Natchan” by Yukinori Togo, Ships of the World (Seikai no Kansen) [Translation by a loyal JSW reader]

Whatever arrangement the SDF has with Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry, they have certainly seen the very utility discussed by Togo. Chartering vessels like the Natchan is a shortcut towards the SDF developing a capable high-speed transport capability, but is currently limited under current laws: ammunition and weapons are forbidden aboard Japanese civilian vessels. However, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction.

Other civilian transport options

Natchan is only one of a handful of options on the SDF’s radar. The use of Japan Freight Railway Co. is mentioned in the original Yomiuri article. The SDF is a regular user of the company’s services, as Japan’s trainspotters demonstrate. Here is a video of 7th Division’s Type-73 APCs arriving in Nishi-Oita on Friday morning, as caught by an interpid enthusiast:

Another asset is NYK’s Yamatai module carrier that ferried 146 metric tons of supplies from Kobe to Hachinohe on March 27th in the wake of the earthquake. What makes the Yamatai interesting is not its ability to ferry supplies, but instead its flat deck which looks like an ideal platform for a makeshift helicopter carrier, which is what NYK offered the government immediately after the quake:

NYK initially offered the Japanese government the use of the module carrier Yamatai as an offshore platform for helicopters to be used to provide relief supplies to the quake-stricken area, but decided to instead use the vessel for the ocean transport of relief supplies after considering the urgency for them. We will consider additional shipments if there are further requests for relief supplies.

- NYK: Yamatai Transports Aid to Survivors of Japan Earthquake and Tsunami -No.1-

The final word

Japan’s private sector has a wealth of logistical options that the SDF can make use of if permission can be granted. While it seems unlikely that they will be seeing any use that might put them under fire, they offer a much-needed boost to military options during peacetime and emergencies. The use of private-sector assets in the response to the Tohoku Earthquake may very well have been a watershed that pushed SDF use of civilian assets onto the discussion table. Furthermore, the SDF need for a means to transport materiel to South Sudan for its peacekeeping mission there demonstrates the international dimension of the debate:

The government at first planned to send materials and equipment to Mombasa port in Kenya by ships, and then send them from there to Juba by land vehicles over a distance of 2,000 km. Since customs procedures in Mombasa and land transportation were expected to take about a month each, the government eventually decided to send materials and equipment to Juba via Entebbe, Uganda, by chartered aircraft.

- Japan Times: SDF principle in South Sudan

With the SDF short on cash and equipment, it has no option but to explore how it can use civilian chartered transport to get where it needs.

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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