Japan’s ground defence force in biggest organisational shake-up amid North Korea threats and China tensions

Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force to get its own central headquarters to control its units, which belong to five regional armies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2018, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2018, 10:30pm

Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force underwent its biggest organisational shake-up Tuesday, in the midst of a challenging security environment, with its command streamlined for flexible operations nationwide and the creation of amphibious forces tasked with defending remote islands.

The launch of the Ground Component Command to provide unified command over regional armies and the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, Japan’s version of the US Marines, came as Tokyo seeks to strengthen its defences against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and China’s maritime assertiveness.

“We are expecting more situations in which the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defence Forces have to work together to rapidly respond at a nationwide level against ballistic missile launches, attacks on islands and major disasters,” Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said.

A senior GSDF member said earlier that establishing a central command headquarters was a “deep desire” of the organisation, which was established as part of the Self-Defence Forces in 1954.

Unlike the air and maritime services, the GSDF had no central headquarters to control its units, which belong to five regional armies, each operating under commanding generals. Therefore, orders had to be issued to each regional army to mobilise its divisions and brigades.

The GSDF’s command structure remained decentralised amid bitter memories of the Imperial Japanese Army’s intervention in politics and its role in wartime military aggression, some political experts say.

But a tougher security environment surrounding Japan has pushed the government to launch the Ground Component Command under its medium-term defence build-up plan approved in 2013.

Onodera asserted that civilian control over the military would be properly maintained “based on pre-war lessons”.

Headquartered at the GSDF’s Asaka base that straddles Tokyo and Saitama prefectures, the Ground Command Component will play the role of coordinator not only with other SDF units but also with the US military.

The GSDF’s first full-scale amphibious operations unit – the other highlight of the reorganisation – was launched with around 2,100 members mainly drawn from the Western Army’s infantry regiment stationed at Camp Ainoura in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture.

The GSDF amphibious brigade would be tasked with retaking Japanese islands, stretching southwest from Kyushu toward Taiwan, if they are illegally occupied.

The isles include Miyako Island, which is about 210 kilometres from the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.

Chinese government vessels have repeatedly entered Japanese waters around the islands, creating tension.

But the amphibious brigade still appears to be a fledgling unit, with the government yet to secure a permanent base for the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that will play a key role in the transport of troops.

The government plans to deploy 17 newly acquired US-made V-22 Ospreys at Saga airport in southwestern Japan, with their delivery to Japan expected from around the fall.

But the government has not won local consent and is not in a situation to push through the plan due to a GSDF helicopter crash in Saga Prefecture in February.

The Ground Component Command is headed by Lieutenant General Shigeru Kobayashi, who formerly led the GSDF’s Central Readiness Force, and the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade is led by Major General Shinichi Aoki, former deputy chief of staff of the Western Army.