By Grant Newsham
When Japan takes a step forward defense-wise it often goes unnoticed.
On Friday, August 24, Britain’s Royal Marines and the newly-established amphibious brigade (ARDB) of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) were ready to conduct a landing exercise on the beach at Numazu training area, southwest of Tokyo.
However, the exercise was cancelled at the last minute, owing to a passing typhoon.
Why significant? It would have been the first time foreign ground troops other than Americans trained in Japan, and the Royal Navy and Maritime Self-Defense Force were also in the mix for Numazu.
But even though the landing didn’t happen, joint planning conferences between the British and Japanese and other preparations did. In the process, the Japanese got a good look at the British and their approach to amphibious operations.
Indeed, American advisors have encouraged the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to study the highly-professional British Marines (and their close relationship with the Royal Navy), rather than aim at being a mirror image of the United States Marine Corps.
The Royal Marines’ small size — only 6,000 men — equipment, organization, and operational techniques differ somewhat from the Americans and some aspects are well suited for the ARDB.
Learning from the ‘HMS Albion’
The Royal Marines, including a 120-man company-sized “Embarked Force” of infantry, came to Japan aboard the amphibious ship HMS Albion as part of a 10-month cruise out to the Asia-Pacific region and back. While it was docked at Yokosuka Navy Base, JSDF officers toured the ship.
Although Japanese ships used for amphibious operations must be jury-rigged to accommodate GSDF troops, the HMS Albion was purposely built for amphibious operations — and with the Royal Marines in mind.
Japanese visitors were reportedly impressed with how the ship’s physical layout maximizes efficient joint Marine-Navy command and control of ground, sea, and air operations, and allows movement of heavily-laden Royal Marines and their equipment off, on, and around the ship.
Japanese ship designers working on the MSDF’s next-generation amphibious ships can’t say they don’t know what’s needed.
The HMS Albion’s visit and planning for the Numazu exercise also highlighted several other longstanding issues facing the JSDF —particularly as it develops its amphibious force.
Proper Amphibious Training Area Needed
The need for a proper ARBD amphibious training area could not be clearer. The more ARBD trains, the more it improves. Numazu is at least better than nothing. But beach conditions are not ideal and, once ashore, there’s nowhere to go inland — unless one “invades” Numazu city proper.
The JSDF can’t count on the Americans developing Guam and the Northern Marianas into a full scale amphibious training area anytime soon. And making the long trip to Australia, Hawaii, or Southern California is costly and time-consuming.
With 18,000 miles of coastline, Japan has plenty of potential sites. But it seems there’s always “local opposition,” in what amounts to a ritualized shake-down racket. For example, Saga prefecture and Tokyo recently agreed on USD100 million as the payoff for basing the ARDB’s MV-22 Osprey helicopters.
The central government just has to figure out the price for an amphibious training site and pay it.
More JSDF Flexibility Needed
Amphibious operations in particular — involving air, sea, and ground operations — demand flexibility as almost nothing goes exactly as planned, not least the weather. Yet, JSDF officers sometimes resemble Soviet-era Red Army officers in their reluctance to operate without explicit approval from headquarters.
The Royal Marines and Royal Navy, however, personify the concept of “mission orders” and letting the forces “get on with it” using their initiative.
Japanese officers could use a similar degree of mental agility, or freedom, to operate untethered to Ichigaya. With enough exposure to the British, some of this might rub off.
Excessive Safety Restrictions During Training
Sea conditions genuinely were unsafe at Numazu at the time the training exercises were scheduled, but JSDF safety restrictions during training are usually excessive and don’t allow JSDF to take the risks necessary to improve.
U.S. observers frequently mention the prohibition on GSDF attack helicopters firing while moving, and shooting only while “hovering.” That’s a good way to die in combat.
The British might have sent just one ship, but there are knock-on effects beyond HMS Albion’s temporary presence. For starters, it’s a sign of political commitment — and where Great Britain stands on the issue of Chinese assertiveness and efforts to dominate East Asia.
To be sure, Britain has scant military resources to devote to Asia. But it does have political and economic clout — if it chooses to use it — and British forces are an important part of U.S. and NATO activities elsewhere.
The HMS Albion‘s visit and the Royal Marine/ARDB Numazu exercise set a precedent for more JSDF engagement with the British and other militaries, and with greater frequency and complexity.
Notably, Japan’s supposedly “pacifist” public had no objections to the HMS Albion, and the Royal Marines and GSDF landing together.
Continuing Japanese-British Maritime Cooperation
The HMS Albion may not return to Japan for a while. It’s the Royal Navy’s only amphibious ship. Britain recently sold its other amphib, HMS Ocean — which was roughly equivalent to the MSDF’s “helicopter destroyer’ JS Izumo — to the Brazilian Navy in a “pound foolish” move.
But it’s still easy to bring the Royal Marines out to Japan again to train with the Japanese “Marines” and MSDF, and join with the Americans and even other friendly forces.
In fact, they already did something along these lines in 2017. A Royal Marine detachment aboard the French amphibious ship, Mistral, conducted four-way training on Guam and nearby Tinian with French Marines, U.S. Marines, and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.
And even better, the UK might assign a Royal Marine officer to Tokyo to work with the GSDF and MSDF and vice versa. Placing ARBD officers with the Royal Marines in the United Kingdom or afloat would be beneficial exposure to amphibious professionals who aren’t American.
And since GSDF is considering procuring its own transports and possibly landing craft utilities, the British Marines might help ARDB build a version of the Royal Marine Assault Squadron — “sea specialists” permanently embarked on Navy ships who serve as Landing Craft Coxswains and the like.
Making It Possible to Imagine the Future
Seven years ago, the idea of a JSDF amphibious force was thought impossible. The idea of Royal Marines coming to Japan was similarly unthinkable.
Yet, the near-landing by British Marines and Japanese “Marines” at Numazu last week shows what’s doable. It also showcased the progress that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had made in breaking down longstanding taboos regarding Japan’s defense. It is now possible to consider what can be achieved in the future with some imagination and effort.
HMS Albion’s visit was a bigger deal than it might have seemed.