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Japan’s Maritime Force Launches ‘Kumano’ Destroyer in a Race to Build Naval Strength






~Tokyo increases in shipbuilding and introduces an alternate crew system amid the Chinese Navy’s rapid expansion of maritime capability~


Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force launched the new destroyer JS Kumano on November 19, amid the MSDF’s urgent need to increase the number of its destroyers. 


The FFM is a next-generation multi-function frigate characterized by its economy of labor, among other features. With the MSDF faced with serious personnel shortages, the new vessel is designed for a scaled-down crew size of about 90 personnel. 



Japan’s maritime force lags behind its Chinese counterpart in terms of number of vessels, a major indicator of naval strength. 


RELATED STORY: China Rapidly Dwarfing Japan in Naval Power, Would Establish Superiority in a Senkakus Showdown


The new escort vessel with its novel FFM hull classification symbol is a key in the effort to resolve these two problems. But MSDF is about to face a third challenge.


Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi stressed in a news conference on November 17 that the Kumano “is designed to cope effectively with the increasing need for patrol and surveillance activities in peacetime, and also complement high-intensity maritime operations to be carried out by other destroyers in a contingency.”  


The frigate will operate with a small crew of about 90, a third of the figure for Aegis destroyers and half that of general-purpose destroyers. Yet another characteristic is its compact size with a standard displacement of 3,900 tons  — less than half that of the Aegis destroyer Maya at 8,200 tons.  




Responding to Pressure


The small crew number has become possible through high-level  automation of its on-board equipment, including careful selection of instruments and equipment related to anti-submarine and anti-mine warfare.


The MSDF intends to introduce what is called an “alternative crew system,” allowing several crews to work on the new vessel in rotation. It will be the first time to put this approach into practice on MSDF destroyers, which have been using an integrated crew approach up to now. That means the vessel is assigned to a periodic maintenance checkup and not assuming duties while the crew takes a break. 


If a rotation system is employed, the first and second crews will serve alternately, with one crew carrying out onboard duties while another is on vacation, presumably enhancing the operational efficiency. 


The MSDF plans to build FFMs at a rate of two vessels a year, with a view of eventually deploying 22 FFMs, and boosting the number of destroyers from 48 (as of April 2020) to 54.



The Chinese Navy’s rapid expansion of maritime capability is a factor behind the rapid increase in shipbuilding and introduction of an alternate crew system. According to the 2020 Defense of Japan (annual white paper) of the Ministry of Defense, China’s maritime capability comprises 109 vessels, including small-size frigates, overwhelming the number of MSDF’s destroyers. 


High expectations are placed on FFMs to overcome the twin challenges of personnel shortages and the need to increase the number of destroyers. 



New Options for MSDF Vessels


A new challenge has recently emerged, however: The government is considering building new Aegis-equipped vessels as an alternate solution to the abandoned plans for an “Aegis Ashore” ground-based ballistic missile interception system.


Crew requirements for the planned Aegis vessel are said to be at 300, three times the figure for an FFM. If two Aegis vessels are introduced at once, they will require a crew of 600, equivalent to six FFMs by simple arithmetic. 



A sense of crisis is growing within the MSDF over fears that the FFM rollout will be delayed due to the construction of the new Aegis vessels. Given that the introduction of the aborted ground-based ballistic missile defense Aegis system was primarily aimed at alleviating the burden on the MSDF, dissatisfaction has been smoldering that plans to construct new Aegis ships run contrary to one of the initial purposes of the Aegis system, according to a senior MSDF officer.


(Read the original column in Japanese here.)


Author: Takushi Ohashi, Staff Writer, Political News Department, The Sankei Shimbun


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