The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force is, with the permission of the US Navy and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, the most comprehensive, powerful and balanced naval force in Asia. By converting its Izumo-class “helicopter destroyers” into light aircraft carriers, acquiring F-35B stealth fighters, a host of world-class escort ships, and the most sophisticated submarine force in the region, They have become a reference over the years. What’s more, in the midst of an increasingly complex regional climate and with a Government determined to increase defense investment to the extent necessary to maintain Japan’s independence and security, all indications are that in the years to come this force will not rather than grow in size and capabilities.
The director of this publication, after many months of waiting, has finally agreed to publish a series of three articles focused on the navies of the nations surrounding China. The reason? Talking about the People’s Republic of China as the next world military power has not been new for a long time. China has expanded and upgraded its naval forces at a breakneck pace.something obvious and undeniable. This, although it does not allow us to directly infer a future unbeatable hegemony on their part, is still a worrying reality, amplified on occasions by the media. In fact, when one reads the general press as well as certain blogs and even specialized websites, one ends up wanting to surrender directly to the nearest embassy (something that also happens, and not by chance, with the Russian Federation). However, in the opinion of the writer, China, in the event of an open conflict, would find itself facing a scenario that is neither enviable nor easy to cope with. He does not even see any reason to deduce a sure victory for China, no matter how many tools you are developing to launch a successful invasion without going any further, on Taiwan.
That’s where these three articles come in, of which this one, dedicated to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, is the first. The other two will deal with other navies in the area, such as the South Korean one, which would also have a lot to say in the event of a regional war, as well as how a hypothetical conflict would unfold. I hope that this series of articles will be of interest to the readers and that they will enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed writing them.
Brief history of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force
Japan is, in its own right, one of the world’s largest economies, as well as the producer and designer of a number of world-class technological advances. No one can doubt the technological capabilities of the Japanese industrial fabric. Likewise, its society is imbued in a great way, towards a national culture of respect and interest in maritime and naval issues of the nation, and in general of the Pacific area. In addition, the loss of the merchant marine at the hands of the US Navy during World War II and the subsequent scarcity of essential resources left a lasting mark that forces the Japanese, even today, to maintain a powerful navy capable of assuring the SLOC (Maritime Lines of Communication).
Therefore, we speak of a society that understands the national dependence on these lines, as well as the moral and social obligation to support a navy capable of keeping them open in every conceivable scenario. A proud nation as well, which despite the particular denomination of its armies – Self-Defense Forces – refuses to leave the defense of the country in foreign hands.
As we know, after the Second World War Japan was, militarily speaking, reduced to the mission of forces focused on the national defense of the archipelago and without the possibility of executing force projections of any kind, beyond the immediate area around their territories. The United States would install a series of military bases on Japanese territory that would be the guarantors of Japanese integrity before a foreign power, while giving Washington the possibility of deploying its own.
The once impressive Imperial Japanese Navy was operationally scrapped by the Allies after the world conflict. However, unlike the Imperial Army, which disappeared to become a force with police functions, the new naval forces were created following the imperial tradition, and even maintaining some of its customs. In 1952 the Coastal Security Forces were created, with the function of clearing the Japanese archipelago of mines, in whose waters the presence of up to 60.000 naval mines was estimated. Later, already in 1954, they would be merged into the current Maritime Self-Defense Forces. The objective of having the country’s lines of communication open was not a trivial matter, since the ability to deliver basic products to the country to keep the local population and the allied forces stationed there depended on it.
During the Cold War, specifically in its final phases and subsequent decades, the Japanese military question evolved. Japanese industry was able to begin supplying its armed forces with top-of-the-line equipment at the highest level. Its armed forces, although confined to its national territory and with no possibility of expanding beyond it, were trained and equipped in a more than satisfactory manner. From this derives that the Japanese Armed Forces are known, in their formal name, as the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), a name that in the case of the navy becomes the Maritime Self-Defense Force of Japan. Japan. The United States would begin to reduce its presence in the archipelago due to costs, while Tokyo was asked to begin to take an active part in defending Western interests, and thus increase its armed forces.
It is in this period that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force begins to be assigned missions to support the US Navy. Specifically, the Soviet submarine threat in the Western Pacific was so high that the US Navy asked Japan to strengthen its ASW capabilities to combat it, both within the escort groups of the US Navy itself, and in its own groups on its national coasts.
In this way, once the Cold War ended, Japan finds itself with a powerful and well-equipped Navy, but focused especially on Anti-Submarine Warfare, although with incipient capabilities in other aspects of Naval Warfare. The capabilities inherent in ASW, as well as its own international policy, make Japan a major player in the region, in the face of the rise of a new threat: chinese submarines.
Since then, Japan has begun to deploy naval units in different world scenarios, always under the umbrella of international operations. The international community sees it favorably, getting used to having Japanese ships operating in such missions, something unheard of just a few decades before. Even Japanese public opinion itself, until now very focused on pacifism, seems to be assimilating this point, normalizing these actions.
After the first Gulf War in 1991, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force participates with a group of six ships in the demining of the region, within the mission of the UN forces. Years later, in 1999, he was asked to deploy a group, on a reconnaissance and maritime patrol mission, in the area of the Noto Peninsula, to fight against incursions by spy ships, apparently from North Korea.
Between 2001 and 2010, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force would deploy a naval grouping to the Indian Ocean, with the main objective of executing supplies at sea to allied units involved in operations in Afghanistan. Said operation, with ships of very different nationalities, although especially American, would successfully carry out almost 1.000 supply operations at sea and almost a hundred helicopters.
Later, between 2004 and 2009, it would again deploy units in support of the International Coalition fighting in Iraq. After this operation, the units of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force would become part, to date, of what is the longest operation carried out outside their nation: the fight against piracy in the indian. Since 2009, it has operated ships and aircraft in the anti-piracy mission in Somalia, having had to open a logistics support base in Djibouti to maintain the effort.
In the last decade, its ships have been present in the biggest natural disasters in its area of influence, such as the 2013 Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the 2016 earthquake in New Zealand, as well as its own typhoons and earthquakes in national territory.
With all this accumulated experience, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force becomes a full-fledged actor in international maritime actions and acquires the experience to be able to ensure its own operational capabilities in the event of a conflict.
Today, with the weight of world interest shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific, what is required of Japan is no longer to maintain the integrity and defense of its nation, something basic and logical, but rather to actively participate on the Western side in strategic competition between great powers. Thus, Japanese ships help control and keep Chinese, Russian and North Korean ships at bay throughout the Pacific basin, carrying out functions that years ago were exclusive to the US Navy.
Let’s go on to see the main units that make up the current Japanese Fleet, which I think will surprise more than one reader who has never had the interest to see it, and the main naval programs that it has in progress, for the most immediate future of the nation. Japanese.
Military relations between Japan and the United States
The military relations between these nations are very particular worldwide. The United States remained the occupying power in Japan after World War II, and this role gradually faded into the guarantor of Japanese sovereignty. Obviously, that represents a budgetary burden for Washington. Little by little, the United States has been asking Tokyo to increase its budget participation in all aspects of defense, as well as the presence of US forces in Japan, something that the Asian country has been doing and that is seen perfection in the defense budgets of the year that begins, the highest in its history.
Tokyo, over the years, is becoming more and more politically willing to take on these new roles, and is investing more and more in its defense and in its defense industry, a key player. However, it does so with certain characteristics of its own. Thus, we can say that Japan develops and maintains systems of a marked defensive nature, while the United States deploys offensive systems in Japan.
Obviously a large number of systems are dual-use and Japan has a great offensive capability, if the political will exists to execute it. The capabilities of ballistic missile defense (BMD) and Japanese CEC (Cooperative Engagement Capability) may be the maximum exponent of the aforementioned. In the specific case of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the Japanese units are trained and have the appropriate doctrine to operate integrated within the US Navy, if necessary, making Japan a first-rate ally of the latter.
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Organization
According to official data from 2018, the MSDF had 135 commissioned ships, of which 47 were destroyers, a naval force of the highest order. According to the 2021 Global Power Index, the Japanese Navy is in fifth place in the world, only surpassed by the United States, Russia, China and India, although it is a debatable ranking. In addition, its Naval Aviation had 163 aircraft and 90 helicopters. Very important numbers without a doubt.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) is made up of the Self-Defense Fleet that brings together the combat forces, 5 maritime districts that make up the territory, an Air Training Command and a Naval Training Squadron, in addition to minor commands . The Self-Defense Fleet, in turn, is made up of:
- 4 Escort Flotillas, each subdivided into 2 Escort Divisions.
- 5 Escort Divisions, independent.
- The Fleet Air Force, subdivided into:
- 4 Patrol Squads
- 5 ASW Squads
- 1 Reconnaissance Squad
- Submarine Forces of the Fleet, composed of 2 Submarine Flotillas, with 3 Submarine Divisions each Flotilla.
- The Mine Warfare Force
- Fleet Intelligence Command
As will be repeated in the rest of the sections of this article, technologically and traditionally Japan does not currently, or ever, encounter a special problem for a technological program related to the construction of submarines. It was one of the first nations to build them, and was able to develop appropriate weapons for them, such as the best torpedoes in the world at the time, a technological facet that it maintains today, obviously executing a significant economic investment to keep its industry oiled.
Regarding the quality of its shipyards and naval industry, in general, little can be criticized in this aspect, having more than ample capacity to execute any project of any kind and without any detriment to the quality of the final product delivered. Steel mills and electrical industries, very important parts of a submarine program, are, once again, among the main companies worldwide. With all this we only want to emphasize that what the Force has only to pay for, since otherwise the industrial habitat of your country can provide it without excessive inconveniences.
With all this we do not want to suggest that Japan is a perfect self-sufficiency. On the contrary, it maintains particularly close ties with the US defense industry and receives all required technological support from Washington, although usually under licensed local construction. This is evident for example in fighter-bombers, but also in warships.
The planning of the Japanese submarine program is something exciting, and with few world comparisons, due to its success. An ironclad policy based on replacing its outdated units in a ratio of 1:1, or even higher, means that a ship with few operational years is practically retired, compared to other Western navies, simply because a new unit of a new class is now ready to replace it. To give us an idea, for more than two decades its replacement rate is one submarine delivered to the fleet each year, without breaks between the different classes.
It currently has two active classes, with some units in the role of experimentation ship, which already says a lot about the seriousness with which they take the matter when it comes to maintaining their submarine fleet over time. These are the Oyashio class, with 11 active units, and the Soryu class with 12 units, the last one being delivered in 2021. Work is currently underway on the next class, called Taigei.
The Oyashio are conventional submarines with a displacement of 4.000 tons under immersion, delivered one per year, between 1998 and 2008. Considered outdated by the country’s standards, the first two units have been transformed into training ships, although they maintain the capacity to combat.
The Soryu class is currently the backbone of the Japanese submarine forces. With a submerged displacement of 4.200 tons, they are among the largest conventional submarines in service. The Soryu, like all the previous classes and for the time being the later one, would have a very powerful R&D program as a technological base for their development, which included the modification of three units, used as a test bed for new technologies.
The Soryu has been, and is, a worldwide pioneer in certain technologies. On the one hand, it has an AIP propulsion system based on Kockums technology and closed-cycle Stirling engines, but built in Japan under license by Kawasaki Heavy Industries. She provides about two weeks of sailing in silent immersion, very suitable for the functions, which, as we will see, these ships could be called upon to perform.
The other new technology that they incorporate, applied at the moment to the last two units built, is that of Ion-Lithium batteries. Japan has been the first actor in the world to be able to implement this technology on such a tremendous scale as that of a submarine, and at the moment, although there is much talk in other countries, only they have it active in series units already. . Japan researched this technology in a spectacular way, by other standards, for more than two decades, before installing it in its serial submarines.
Making a quick entelechy, we can say that Lithium-Ion batteries offer a series of advantages over the classic lead-acid or gel batteries. On the one hand, they are loaded faster, which reduces the time the submarine needs to remain on the surface or at snorkel level, and therefore increases the discretion of the platform. On the other hand, they are capable of storing greater electrical power per volumetric unit. Therefore, with the same battery bank, a submarine with Ion-Lithium will be able to stay longer sailing only with batteries, or the same, but at higher speeds. In open sources, a capacity of up to twice that of the classic lead-acid sources is mentioned. Likewise, maintenance is, at least apparently, simpler and faster, for which it must be understood that in large fairings the submarine will be able to save some time in this aspect, and the crews will appreciate it. The cost, as we can infer from all this, is higher, especially considering that it is a new technology, although it is still not very well known if this cost will reduce over time, so it is possible that it will be lowered notably.
The complete class is made up of 12 units, built between 2009 and 2021. In 2010 it would be decided to increase the number of operational units with the Fleet, going from 16 to 22, building more units, and keeping some of them operational for longer. We will come back to that idea later. The cost of each unit, without the R&D and associated programs, is estimated to be in the range of 600 million dollars, which does not seem crazy for what can be seen in other countries with similar programs, especially considering that it is already an operational platform.
The armament carried by both classes is based on 89mm Type 533 heavy torpedoes and SSM Sub-Harpoon missiles. The reloading capacity stowed on board is 30 torpedoes. There is a program for the development of a new heavy torpedo for the fleet. We must point out that although Japanese torpedoes benefit from American technology, more in the Mk46 than in the Mk48, they have been able to maintain and develop their own industry around this complex field of arms.
The current submarine fleet allows Japan to keep a significant number of units at sea continuously, at any given time. In fact, if necessary, they can maintain more units than initially planned, delaying maintenance, and changing crew rotations.
At a future level, Japan is already immersed in the next class of submarines, the Taigei. These submarines have involved a huge R&D program in the last fifteen years. Other submarines have been used to test new technologies, and lithium-ion batteries have been implemented as standard equipment. For the rest, it follows the path opened by the Soryu, including its shapes and its aft rudders in X. So far there are three units under construction, the «Taigei» expected to be delivered in 2022, the «Hakugey», for 2023 and a third unit still to be christened, by 2024. So we have to assume that Japan will continue with its policy of a new unit every year, for a long time.
Another factor that Japan manages is to once again increase the number of operational units. Contrary to other nations, which would imply the construction of new units, with large initial costs and saturation in the shipyards, the Japanese country has the relatively easy solution of increasing the operational life of its units, from say, 22 years to 30 years , not removing them from service when it is actually their turn. Obviously this would imply increasing the number of crews above 500 men, and executing large careenings on the units. Both are affordable and practical solutions, should Tokyo make the final decision.
Internationally, and following a national movement to export its military equipment, some nations have shown interest in the Soryu, being considered one of the best conventional submarines in the world. Unlike Russia or the West, which always struggle to export their products, and therefore are known everywhere, the Japanese product is quite unknown in general. Nations such as Norway, Morocco, India, Australia, the Netherlands or Taiwan have requested information of this kind for their respective national programs, although nothing has been specified at the moment.
And although veiled, and certainly not officially, Taiwan’s national submarine program is known to, integrates “retired” Japanese engineers from its naval industry, with a tacit government and business approval. A very interesting export of experience and knowledge.
I know that some may not agree with the epigraph of this section, but the reality is that Japan, since the beginning of its last great program of surface units, sought to incorporate aircraft carriers, in the plural, into its fleet.
The Imperial Navy was already one of the great promoters of this concept, before World War II, and applied it with notable success during the conflict. The Japanese constitution expressly prohibits its Armed Forces from equipping themselves with weapons or platforms of an offensive nature, and the aircraft carrier, by definition, is a platform for the offensive projection of a nation’s naval power. Therefore, the introduction of this type of vessels, and its construction in the country, had to be executed with great political tact, both for the public opinion itself and for the international one.
Following the Soviet tradition of naming aircraft carriers with strange names to circumvent documents and treaties, Japan names its major ships Multi-Purpose Operations Destroyers. The case, as we are going to see now, is that they are low-displacement aircraft carriers, but with considerable capabilities. China’s criticism of these ships can give us an indication of the value of the units and the increased combat capabilities they bring to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.
The project would begin to roll in 2009, when the Ministry of Defense would show an airborne landing ship, focused on the operation with anti-submarine warfare helicopters, a function in which it is also very valid, and to support humanitarian tasks. With hangars and facilities to handle up to twenty aircraft with ease, the installation of lifts oversized in lifting capacities, as well as the embarked wing, which was set at 7 ASW and 2 SAR helicopters, drew attention.
From the beginning the whole project seemed a bit strange. 248 meters long, 27.000 tons of displacement, a beam of 38 meters, hangars and decks to handle more than two dozen aircraft, an estimated cost per unit in the range of 2.000 million dollars and all this for half a dozen helicopters . From these first days, speculations pointed to the fact that the ship was destined for a much more serious role; the inclusion of embarked fixed aviation.
As we have indicated, Japanese society had to digest the news in a gradual and calm way, while the international community had to process it in a measured way.
The first unit, the “Izumo”, was commissioned by the fleet in March 2015, followed by its twin, the “Kaga”, two years later. With the entry into service of the «Kaga» the Japanese Government would finally reveal its real intentions for these large ships, the largest built for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force since World War II: both ships will operate with fixed-wing aircraft, the F -35B Lightning II of Lochkeed Martin.
A project for the adaptation of both ships to operate with these planes is approved. Basically it consists of re-protecting the flight deck from jet blasts, increasing the APU available to fighters and reforming the deck in the forward area. As we can see, a series of minor works, from which we can deduce that the original project already contemplated the operation of jet fighters on these ships, not having applied small measures, which could be done a posteriori. Reforms are being carried out in a phased manner on both ships, and “Izumo” should be completely refurbished by 2.024.
The F-35Bs will be purchased and operated by the Japanese Air Force. Although it is attributed to a budgetary issue, that the pilots and the operator of the aircraft are from the Air Force, the truth is that it also seems like a public relations move, leaving the Navy free from the possession of embarked combat fighters and trained pilots on that mission. In 2019, 42 F-35B fighters are ordered with estimated deliveries starting in 2023. This squadron will be based at the Nyutabaru Air Base, very close to the Kure Naval Base, where the Japanese aircraft carriers are based.
Although it is yet to be defined, it is estimated that each of the ships will be able to operate with just over a dozen F-35Bs on board and a reduced number of helicopters. While the Japanese aircraft are delivered, an agreement would be signed with the United States Marine Corps so that their F-35Bs could operate from Japanese ships. That way you could gain experience and know-how in this years. The Marines, with units permanently deployed in Japan, would begin these tests with the first landing on board in October 2021, confirming future Japanese capabilities.
The concern among Japan’s neighbors, especially China, is not trivial. These two ships with their embarked aviation can carry out powerful operations in remote theaters of operations, where until now China could enjoy relative superiority. The neutralization of the air bases on the island of Okinawa is a vital part of China’s strategy in the Pacific. The Japanese aircraft carriers could be a serious setback in this regard, in the case of deploying in the area and providing a 5th generation air component.
The Chinese strategy of armored islands, very isolated from each other, and I gave themsputadas Senkaku, is also affected by these units, which have the ability to vary the master parameters of the Chinese strategy in the area. Hence Beijing’s deep concern. And always remembering that these units increase the capabilities of the US Navy in the area, as we will see in the last article in the series.
Likewise, the neighbor to the North, Russia, is also now facing two new units that can project naval power and provide air cover in the disputed Kuril Islands and in the Japanese straits, for your Pacific Fleet.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the race for aircraft carriers in the Indo-Pacific region was precisely inaugurated by China, with the old Soviet ships and its current program underway. We can see how this race is being strongly followed by its neighbors, and there is no reason to think that they cannot leave China’s efforts far behind in this regard, as it is a joint action, although not coordinated, of countries that are economically and technologically very strong. , and willing to keep Beijing’s pulse.
And based on this we can conjecture a little about the future of the aircraft carrier program, or however they want to define it in Tokyo, because we have to be clear that there will be a future. Their chain planning system, without a doubt, forces them to continue the development of the next class, although they may space it out a bit in time to assimilate the lessons learned from these new experiences.
The next natural evolutionary step should be towards a more online platform with a «Queen Elizabeth». It is no coincidence, far from it, that BAE Systems opened a representative office in Japan in October 2021. It’s obviously not a stated intention on either side, but it seems pretty obvious that BAE Systems could add a lot to an evolution of the Izumo. The same «Queen Elizabeth» visited Japan a month before, so we can understand that there is an interest on both sides.
Should Japan decide to further evolve in this field, it would count on the invaluable help of the United States and the United Kingdom, in terms of operational experiences, doctrines and tactics, as well as maintenance and planning. Something of great weight in this type of projects. The AUKUS initiative opens a series of tangential doors to the rest of the allied nations in the region, and this could be a field derived from the agreement with Australia. London, as well as other European nations in general, have made a strong turn towards the Indo-Pacific in which everyone can win.
On the question of logistical support, it would not be hard for us to imagine that a larger pilot training program could see squadrons of Japanese F-35Bs operating from American or British flight decks, just as we will now see Marines on Japanese decks. In fact, have already agreed train in Italy.
AUKUS also opens a new Pandora’s box. Will it be the next nuclear-powered Japanese aircraft carrier? Japan is one of the main world powers in reference to the nuclear industry, so a conversion to naval, surface or submarine propulsion does not seem like a pipe dream. Especially if he has the close support of Washington and London, as they have just done with Canberra. Perhaps the biggest problem in this case would be given by Japanese public opinion itself, but that would already be the generation following ours, with which socially much may have changed the matter. In any case, the UK today, and the US Navy for decades, operated large aircraft carriers on worldwide deployments without major problems. A Japanese large-displacement aircraft carrier, with a highly capable carrier wing, should have no major problems with conventional propulsion for an Indo-Pacific deployment.
Just to note, that already today, the Izumo class usually makes a deployment to the Indian Ocean on an annual basis and with a typical duration of two months. With which a larger ship could continue this deployment policy, increasing Tokyo’s force projection capacity, without major problems.
The Surface Fleet
Japan, like the US soon after, would make the decision to base its surface fleet on destroyer-sized ships. It is very worth emphasizing that the Japanese destroyer program may be the most complete, active and numerous in the world, outside of the American DDG Arleigh Burke, which have also influenced Japan.
At present we could clearly differentiate three groups of different destroyers in the Japanese fleet. DDE destroyer escorts, DDG destroyer escorts with enhanced capabilities, and focused on defense of CVs, LHDs and AEGIS, and DDG AEGIS. The Japanese Navy currently has a not inconsiderable fleet of 42 active destroyers.
14 destroyers fall into the DDE category, they are the oldest ships in the Navy and are made up of 8 units of the DDE Asagiri class, commissioned between 1988 and 1991, as well as 6 units of the DDE Abukuma class, delivered to the Naval Force of Japan Self-Defense between 1989 and 1993. Vessels have outdated equipment by today’s standard and were designed as escorts with enhanced ASW and ASuW capabilities, at the time. The Asagiri displace 5.200 tons with a length of 137 meters, while the Abukuma do so with 2.550 tons and a length of 109 metres, the latter entering rather in the category of frigates.
Their armament is common between both classes, having a 76mm naval artillery piece, Phalanx CIWS mounts (2 on the Asagiri and 1 on the Abukuma), 8 SSM Harpoon missiles and 8 ASROC ASW missiles. In addition, the Asagiri have an eightfold launcher for SAM Sea Sparrow missiles. Both classes are already planned for replacement with the new Mogami class.
20 destroyers make up the DDG force, subdivided into 4 classes or subclasses, since their designs are correlative derivatives between them. This escort force was designed with the idea of protecting capital ships, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships and AEGIS, from submarine and surface threats, although a zonal SAM defense capability was also implemented over time to increase global defenses. of the grouping.
It would start with an order for 14 Murasame-class destroyers, to be delivered between 1996 and 2000. These ships displace 6.200 tons for 151 meters in length. They are considered the first second-generation Japanese destroyers, due to the qualitative leap that their combat systems provided to the escort units. Stealth technologies are applied in the design of the ship’s structures and a new hull is designed, heavily influenced by the Arleigh Burke, although in a very different configuration.
Its armament was based on ASW helicopter operation capability, 76mm artillery, 2 Phalanx mounts, 8 SSM-1B missiles and two VLS systems, a Mark 48 with 16 cells for ESSM launch and a Mark 41 with 16 cells for operate with the ASROC VL.
However, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force was not completely satisfied with the final result of these ships and would cancel the last five of the class, replacing them with a design evolution that would give rise to the Takanami class, of 5 units and finished. between 2003 and 2005. The combat system would be improved, and the two VLS would be replaced by a 32-cell Mk 41 system, starting to operate with the RUM-139 ASROC. Likewise, the 76 mm artillery piece would be replaced by a 127 mm one with greater offensive capacity and which would become the Fleet standard.
The next evolution would be the Akizuki. 4 units, with 6.800 tons and 150 meters in length. Said class would incorporate an indigenous combat system and would continue to be an escort unit for the capital units, improving its stealth lines. Also maintaining the same basic weapons as in the previous units.
The last evolutionary step has been the Asahi class, with two units delivered between 2018 and 2019. Its main task is ASW, having implemented the combat systems in this aspect, maintaining the same attack vectors.
The other series of destroyers, let’s call it DDG AEGIS, was born from the Japanese study in the 70’s and 80’s of the last century, of the Soviet threat to its fleet. The Soviet naval bombers, as well as the SSG/SSGN of the Soviet Fleet to a lesser extent, represented a threat with such offensive potential that Tokyo did not believe it was possible for its escort fleet to efficiently deal with said threat. The solution was to request the assistance of the United States and its very powerful AEGIS combat system.
Japan was the first country in the world to build a ship equipped with the AEGIS combat system outside of the United States. The initial class would be the Kongo, 4 units commissioned between 1993 and 1998. With a displacement of 9.500 tons and 161 meters in length, their VLS system would be a Mark 41 with 90 cells and prepared for SM-2MR, SM-3, RUM- 139 ASROC and RIM-162 ESSM. By displacement and capabilities, they could be considered cruisers. They do not have a hangar for the operation of helicopters, although they do have a flight deck.
Subsequently, two sub-variants will emerge based on the Kongo: the Atago, 2 units with entry into service in 2007 and 2008, and the Maya, delivered between 2020 and 2021. The AEGIS systems have been updated to be able to operate in anti-ballistic capabilities, to the Baseline 9C version. The armament panoply of its 41-cell Mark 96 VLS allows the use of the SM-6.
The combat systems are prepared to be able to operate in conjunction with the ships of the US Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. The AEGIS’s ABM capabilities have increased defense capability in the face of the growing ballistic threat from North Korea. Japan purchased two AEGIS systems for ground installation, which, for political reasons, have not been installed on the islands. The Maya come to fill that gap from a naval platform, although currently it is still being studied where and how to install the ground-based AEGIS, which cannot be ruled out that they could be mounted on a new class of destroyers, which, due to the size and weight of the equipment, would require a new design.
The Mogami class is the major ongoing project of Japan’s surface units. The antiquity in the systems of the Abukuma and Asagiri classes, as well as the already retired Hatsuyuki, gave rise to the study and design of a multifunction frigate that would replace these classes and unify the platforms. The Mogami class came to fill that gap.
Based on a design that applies aeronautical stealth technology derived from the X-2 project, it is supposed to be a high-performance warship in a modern combat environment. A very limited displacement of 5.500 tons and a length of 133 meters, manage to maintain a crew of only 90 people, being a significant reduction in personnel, to be able to build a large number of units.
Currently a series of 22 units is planned for the replacement of the most obsolete classes and the following future classes to withdraw. Four units are under construction, with 8 units confirmed in quotes! The first three units have already been launched between 2020 and 2021, with service entry dates scheduled in all three cases for 2.022. The program planning calls for a cruising speed of two units delivered per year.
As main armament, it has a 127 mm artillery piece, 8 launchers for SSM Type 17, 1 launcher for SeaRam short-range SAM missiles and naval mine deployment capacity. These ships have the pre-installation and space reservation for a 41-cell Mk16 VLS, but its purchase and integration into the ships has not been confirmed at the moment. This will enable them to operate with higher performance SAMs, such as the ESSM. It has a hangar for operation with ASW helicopters.
This vessel integrates a series of new technologies as standard. The CIC is a new design, very futuristic, with screens surrounding it 360º with the idea of presenting all the data from the sensor network and other platforms, presenting them to the operators as augmented reality. She will also be prepared to operate aerial and underwater drones, the latter as an enhancement to her mine-fighting capability, but not exclusively restricted to this role.
The cost per unit is in the range of 450 to 500 million dollars, and it has been the first Japanese naval product, with great possibilities of winning an international contract. Specifically, the news pointed to him as the winner of an Indonesian Navy program to be equipped with 8 units of this class. Finally, this contract would be won by the Italian Fincantieri, with a design based on the FREMM.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has had a specific amphibious landing craft unit since 2018. Known as the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade. Prior to this date, the Japanese Army assumed the functions of amphibious operations with a Brigade of the Western Army Infantry Regiment, which received specific training and support from the US Marines.
The current Brigade expects to have about 3.000 troops and follows a classic structure inherited from the US Marines. The troops are sized to create a beachhead, or in the particular Japanese case, the ability to land an effective combat force on the pleiad of islands in conflict in which Japan has national interests, or their allies have. .
Said landing force is supported by a more than considerable fleet of amphibious operations, within the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force itself, made up of five main units, ignoring the two Izumo-class units mentioned at the beginning of the analysis, for having treated them as aircraft carrier.
The Osumi class is made up of three ships with a displacement of 13.000 tons and a length of 178 metres. Designed and operated as an airborne landing ship and with ASW functions if necessary, they are ships that fulfill the mission of strategic transport for the Japanese army. Three units make up this class (“Osumi”, “Shimokita” and “Kunisaki”) and can operate with helicopters such as the CH-47 and with two hovercraft in its flood dam.
The transport capacity is focused on 10 heavy tanks and 330 fully equipped troops, in addition to the required logistical support. Despite the functions it fulfills, these ships are currently very limited. The internal layout of the ship does not help to increase the embarked wing or the equipment to be transported, while, to operate with modern units, such as the MV-22 Osprey or AAV7, they require modernization.
Nor does it have a specific hangar for embarked aircraft, which greatly limits its capabilities when it comes to operating with them for a long time. These ships were delivered to the Navy between 1998 and 2003, already having some years in their frames. Japan, which has a wide interest in this type of ship, even considered the acquisition of an American Wasp-type design to increase its capabilities.
With the current situation focused on aircraft carriers of a more conventional nature, but maintaining amphibious capabilities, the operational life of these ships can be considered amortized in favor of larger and more versatile and capable ships.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has six US-built LCAC-1 hovercraft, delivered between 1997 and 2004, to operate from the flood dams of these ships. These vectors provide a rapid reaction capacity when it comes to amphibious operations.
These designs were followed by a more advanced class, but with a different operational purpose. The Hyuga class, larger than the Osumi, was designed and built as an ASW warship and command ship, without neglecting amphibious operations capabilities, but certainly not as its vital function.
The Hyuga class is made up of two units, “Hyuga” and “Ise”, commissioned between 2009 and 2011 and with a displacement of 19.000 tons and a length of 197 metres. This ship does have a large hangar for aircraft operations. She is supposed to be able to board up to two dozen helicopters depending on the model. And as we have already mentioned, they form the core of Anti-Submarine Task Forces.
ASW is of great importance in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, inheriting from the Cold War period for the interception of Soviet submarines in their deployment to the Pacific, and currently focused on the growing submarine threat posed by Chinese PLAN units.
The Hyuga, until the arrival of the Izumo, the largest ships of the Japanese Navy, want to be modernized to be able to operate continuously with the MV-22 Osprey. So far, USMC units have operated from cover without permanent deployment. The question of whether or not they could operate with F-35Bs is something that seems to be in the background, due to political issues since the Izumo have fully picked up this witness in the Fleet.
Unlike Western designs of this type of ship, the Hyuga are equipped with a SAM defense capability based on a 41-cell Mark 16 VLS, capable of operating with ESSM and RUM-139 ASROC VL. They also feature two Phalanx CIWS mounts.
The Fleet Air Forces include both fixed and rotary wing units, which serve organically with the Japanese Navy. It is logical to assume that with the large number of surface units that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has, it will be served by a proportional number of helicopters, as it is. The land-based units, mainly the MPA or ASW, are also a large fleet, due to the great importance of maritime traffic for Japan and the potentially dangerous nations that it must face and that have important submarine fleets, such as China. or Russia.
Japan operates the legendary P-3C Orion as its main maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. It has a fleet of more than 60 units in the ASW version and a dozen units in ELINT and training variants. The P-3C is a technologically surpassed aircraft and the country’s industry is already producing units of the device that should replace it: the Kawasaki P-1.
In this way, and since 2013, the Naval Aviation is receiving the Kawasaki P-1, an ASW aircraft specifically designed for this purpose, and not derived from a commercial platform. It currently has 23 operational units with the fleet, and there is an intense political debate to determine the definitive size of said aircraft fleet, since initially 90 units were proposed with 70 in ASW configuration and 20 for transport. At present it seems that this number wants to be reduced.
It is certainly an area fleet of considerable size and represents one of the main assets that Japan offers for blocking the free movement of submarines in its border waters or the ability to deploy ASW beyond its borders, if necessary.
Like the P-3Cs, the P-1s are also prepared to operate with both torpedoes and ASM missiles, increasing the offensive potential of these aerial platforms in the Pacific theater of operations.
The naval helicopter fleet is based on the SH-60 model, with an ongoing acquisition program for the K variant. The order is for 100 units divided between ASW and SAR variants. On the other hand, the Japanese Army has acquired some units of the American V-22 Osprey that will also operate with the Fleet.
As will be mentioned in the next section, it also has AWH-101 helicopters for minesweeping, which provides a rapid response capacity to the threat of minefields, at points that are vital for its economy.
Japan, as an island nation and a traditional maritime power, pays great attention to mine warfare, both offensive and defensive. The special position of the country, and the accumulation of straits and critical navigation points (Choke Points) helps a lot because an offensive mining by Japan can have very large operational consequences on its enemies.
Maritime traffic is also very intense in this theater of operations, and the islands are completely dependent on goods imported by ships. For this reason, in addition to a powerful submarine fleet as a natural means of defense against other submarines and a powerful ASW force, Japan has never given up mine warfare.
The operational origin of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force arose after World War II, when its main, and almost only, task was cleaning up the more than 60.000 mines that still threatened ships in its coastal waters. Work that penetrated very deeply into the future commanders of the Fleet. The first Japanese international military operation outside its borders took place, as we have explained, after the 1991 Gulf War. It consisted of dredging naval mines in the Persian Gulf area. The experience acquired there would cause this important field of Naval Warfare to be strengthened in its Navy and new doctrines and equipment to be integrated into its units.
Its arsenal of mines is based on the K-33, K-55 and K-56 models in the peg version and the K-70 bottom mine. It features units specifically designed for deployment, as well as the aforementioned new FFG Mogami class and its large fleet of submarines.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force maintains a diverse number of units of different classes and designs in active service. 17 already old dredging units of the Sugashima, Hirashima and Enoshima classes make up the main means of combating mines, with ships with wooden hulls and composite materials, to avoid problems with magnetic materials.
Two much larger ships, the Uraga class, make up the command and control units, in addition to having the ability to deploy minefields. They can also operate helicopters for forward deployments to enemy camps, with veteran MH-53s on board specializing in that role. Now outdated, they entered service between 1997 and 1998, and with a displacement of 6.800 tons, they offer ocean-going capabilities to the Fleet.
Japan entrusts the future of this segment to a new class, currently under construction, the Awaji class. Three units have been commissioned from 2017 to 2021 and a fourth is under construction. They are ships with a displacement of 700 tons, with a length of 67 meters and a reinforced fiber hull. They have advanced means for the operation of underwater drones (UUV) for the deactivation of mines, as well as sonars for their location. Its forms also benefit from the application of stealth technology to reduce its acoustic form.
This class, of which sub-variants are expected to emerge, will be the standard in such roles with the Japanese Navy for decades to come, with more than a dozen hulls expected to be built. What we can affirm is that the number of units exclusively assigned to the War of Mines will be reduced in the following decades. The reason is budgetary and that is why it has been decided that the aforementioned FFG/M Mogami will have a limited MCM capacity, in order to try to maintain capacities in the Fleet. We’ll see exactly how this patch works in the future of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, or if it’s finally necessary to go back to building additional Awaji-class units.
As we have already mentioned, Japan has a technological industry, in practically all fields, of the first order. This is extensive to the weapons systems that equip their ships and aircraft. In many cases they have started for this from the production under license of foreign manufacturers, generally American.
In the field of missiles, both anti-ship and anti-aircraft, the Japanese industry has been able to develop very valid products with high standards compared to the rest of the allied countries.
In the field of anti-ship missiles (SSM), Japan began a long-term collaboration with the Harpoon. From this model it has developed a completely national product, with variants that can be launched from almost all platforms in service, including those of its Air Force.
The Type 80 (ASM-1) is the parent missile of a whole family of weapons. Developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, it entered service with the air forces in the 1980s. It is an air-launched missile against ships, although an intense R&D program has made it capable of attacking land and naval targets. Its range is of the order of 30 nautical miles. The fleet that can use it as a vector were the F-4 and the national aircraft F-1 and F-2.
This missile would have two sub-variants, based on its launch platform; the Type 88 (SSM-1) launched from TEL (Transport-Erector-Launcher) trucks of the Japanese Army. Said missile would equip around fifty TEL trucks, with several missiles for each launcher. This weapon, considered Coastal Artillery, has a range of about 55 nautical miles and in the particular case of Japan it plays an important tactical role.
The deployment of these batteries in the Japanese maritime straits, or on the islands around the main islands, provide an attack capacity against enemy surface units, thus initially denying free access of enemy units to said Choke Points. It is a complement to what we have seen above about Mine Warfare or Anti-Submarine Warfare.
In 2015, this missile would be upgraded to a new version, the Type 12, with improvements in guidance and navigation systems, as well as a range increased to more than 110 nautical miles.
The Type 88 would derive the first Japanese ship-launched missile, the Type 90 (SSM-1B). The general characteristics of this missile would be similar to those of the Harpoon, with 80 nautical miles of range, subsonic cruise speed and a 260-kilogram HE warhead. It would begin equipping Japanese destroyers in the 1990s and gradually replace the US missile in the Japanese Fleet, with government orders for more than 400 units.
Regarding the Type 12, it has been working for a few years on a series of improvements, entering a new project, the Type 17 (SSM-2). Said missile will be the one that equips a series of aerial platforms, such as the P-1 and possibly the F-15J -a device that will be modernized in depth in the coming years-, surface units such as the Maya and, although unconfirmed, it could exist an encapsulated version for submerged launch from submarines.
One of the main improvements of this missile is based on increasing its range with respect to previous versions. The first phase, already in tests, would include a range of the missile between 200 and 900 km and with a final project objective of reaching 1.500 km. This program was approved in December 2020 and aims to apply multi-platform launch and strike capability against ground targets, giving Fleet units one more capability.
Japan is a contained force, slowly making its way. Its potential is very great in the naval field, and aside from budgetary reasons, it should not have a technological or operational limit, in principle. On the contrary, its current policy is to expand and operate top-tier teams and units.
The main threat perceived in its region of influence is China, with the PLAN at the forefront, but followed by North Korea, due to its ballistic missile program and its large, albeit obsolete, submarine fleet. To a lesser extent, so would South Korea. Japan’s relationship with its neighbors, although not tense, does maintain friction with many of them, although, for the moment, limited to relations between civilized countries and under the scrutiny of international organizations.
Obviously the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, like the navy of any other country, also suffers from its own problems. On the one hand, the Japanese Armed Forces, in general, suffer from a great problem in terms of personnel, since they are not able to recruit as many troops as they would like. A military career in a nation as competitive as Japan is less profitable than an equivalent profession in the civilian field.
The Fleet suffers from the lack of a strong logistics support squad. It currently owns five oil tankers, albeit outdated and designed to maintain operations with the structure of the Fleet from a decade ago. These ships are not only essential for the current missions of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, but also to be able to continue to maintain deployments in more distant theaters of operations, such as the Indian Ocean or the Strait of Formosa.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force needs to strengthen this capacity significantly, as well as reinforce the entire logistics structure of the Fleet, with special emphasis on Okinawa. With a mindset of not projecting its Naval Force beyond its shores, Japan is now equipped with units that can do so without serious inconvenience for years to come. The need for new AOR ships is important and they have the technological capacity. It is a question of new planning and, as always, of money.
Its own naval bases are very limited, since its ships do not operate from commercial ports by regulation and therefore latent capabilities have not been implemented in them to support its Fleet. Once again, Okinawa, which would become a central hub in the event of a conflict with China, requires significant investment in infrastructure if combat units of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force are to be maintained there.
The other big problem that we could identify in their fleet is the lack of a strong amphibious ship capacity. Although the Osumi and Izumo can support operations, the size of the Fleet and its forces and amphibious capabilities seem disproportionate. We have to keep in mind that one of the scenarios to contemplate in this theater would be multiple and consecutive amphibious operations in different island chains.
Of course, Japan will operate in conjunction with the US Navy and the USMC, but the lack of proportionality in its fleet is something that draws a lot of attention and should be a cause for concern in the years to come.
Currently the biggest unknown surrounding the MSDF, at least for this author, is the effect that the AUKUS will have on it, and on other nations in the region. Japan, for historical, political and industrial reasons, is one of the leading countries in nuclear technology. Its industry in this field is a world reference, and its products are of a very high standard. The AUKUS seems to have opened up the possibilities for other Pacific Rim nations to equip themselves with nuclear-powered submarines or vessels in the not-too-distant future.
After Australia, which had been thinking about the idea for years, Japan and South Korea are the nations that have been studying this option for years, and to a lesser extent Canada. The military-nuclear issue in Japan is an absolute political taboo, however, the disappearance of the post-war generation is opening up new options in this field.
The MSDF, for its functions, would require some submarine nuclear propulsion units. They could not abandon the conventional ones, where we remember they are pointers, since they are required for coastal operations and in the archipelagos that populate its geography. But the Japanese SSN would provide a very long-range deployment capability, independent of their logistics chains, capable of completely changing China’s strategy. In addition, the US Navy would be reinforced in this field by new units for joint operations, increasing the number of units available in the region.
Technologically and industrially, there would not be a big problem to face. In this particular case, the hard questions to solve are social and economic. And especially the first one. Unlike Australia, Japan in this field does have one more twist. Making a chimera, the idea of two nuclear aircraft carriers for Japan would be to make a qualitative and quantitative leap in its ability to project naval power. The option is not unreasonable and should not be ruled out. With the inclusion of the Izumos and their F-35Bs, the US Navy also gains two new runways from which to operate in the Pacific. Imagine, then, if those runways became nuclear-powered.
Some Japanese politicians, in the wake of the AUKUS, have already started talking openly about this option. Japan, being the fourth largest submarine force in the world, will never lose sight of the possibility of equipping itself with nuclear propulsion units that allow it to deploy them to remote regions. And that would affect the balance of power in the region and its naval strategy.
This last one, by the way, we will leave for later, when we jointly analyze the naval operations in this theater of operations, by all the parties involved.
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