One in three Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels ageing beyond use limits

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 November, 2016, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 November, 2016, 5:02pm

One in three Japan Coast Guard vessels has gone into use beyond its operational time limit, constraining the coastguard’s capacity at a time when its roles are growing in importance amid Chinese muscle-flexing around disputed islands in the East China Sea, coastguard officials said on Saturday.

The officials attributed the ageing of the fleet to a slow replacement process following the last mass fleet expansion decades ago after Japan extended its territorial waters and fishing zone in 1977.

The coastguard has set a 25-year use period for relatively large patrol ships in its fleet, and a 20-year use limit for its smaller patrol boats. Of the 366 patrol vessels large and small, 129 vessels, or 35 per cent, had exceeded their operational time limits by the end of March.

Six more vessels will have exceeded their time limits by the end of next March. Over a 10-year period after that, 98 more vessels are expected to reach their use period limits.

In 1977 Japan extended its territorial waters from 3 nautical miles (about 5.5km) from the shore to 12 miles, while establishing a 200-mile fishing zone.

The changes vastly expanded the area of coastguard activities, prompting the maritime law-enforcement authorities to build 107 vessels between 1977 and 1980.

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The fleet began entering a replacement period around 2000, but because of budgetary constraints the coastguard has found it difficult to replace retiring ships with a matching number of new vessels, the officials said.

With Chinese ships frequently spotted around the Japanese-administered, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, called Diaoyu in China, the coastguard is also trying to procure new patrol vessels.

But it costs over 10 billion yen (over US$97 million) to build a large one, and the service’s initial budget for new patrol vessels and aircraft has recently been around 30 billion yen a year.

The coastguard is thus struggling to address the question of how to ensure enough vessels amid budgetary constraints and how it can operate its fleet in an efficient way.

Ageing ships show their age in the most glaring way in their engine performance, coastguard officers say. Such ships are often reassigned to roles requiring little speed. But sometimes ageing ships suddenly break down, rendering it difficult to carry out assigned work, a coastguard officer said.