Establish seamless island defense system to be ready for rapid response

Chinese ships’ intrusions into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands have become a regular occurrence. Acts that violate Japanese sovereignty are unacceptable. Japan and the United States must cooperate to establish a seamless island defense system.

The Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military conducted a joint exercise called Keen Sword in waters around Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures in mid-November. A total of 36,000 personnel, 30 naval vessels and 370 aircraft participated in one of the largest drills held this fiscal year.

At Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, amphibious vehicles equipped with a Maritime Self-Defense Force transport ship and a U.S. vessel landed on the shore to conduct drills on gaining control of the area. They confirmed the procedures for landing operations for Osprey transport aircraft from Japan and the United States.

It is significant to enhance the level of skill for recapturing remote islands and air operations. It is hoped that Japan and the United States will sort out the issues that surfaced in the latest exercise and improve their joint response capabilities.

The Nansei Islands, which span about 1,200 kilometers, are located near sea lanes mainly for tankers. The waters in the area are a lifeline for Japan, which relies on foreign sources of energy.

China frequently has its naval vessels, including submarines, and bombers, pass through the Miyako Strait as a route for advancing into the Pacific Ocean. Reinforcing warning and surveillance operations in and around the islands is an urgent task.

In the Nansei Islands, the Ground Self-Defense Force only had units on Okinawa Island for a long time, but in recent years, it has also opened camps on Yonaguni, Amami Oshima and Miyako islands. A missile unit will also be deployed to Ishigaki Island at the end of this fiscal year. It is important to eliminate the vacuum in the defense system.

Still, parts of the GSDF’s system remain insufficient.

The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which is responsible for defending remote islands, is based at a camp in Nagasaki Prefecture. The Defense Ministry plans to deploy GSDF Ospreys to Saga Airport in a neighboring prefecture as a means of transport for the brigade, but the ministry had no choice but to have them temporarily deployed at a camp in Chiba Prefecture because it failed to coordinate with local authorities.

The ministry finally reached an agreement this month with a fishing cooperative in Saga Prefecture, which was concerned about the deployment’s impact on the environment. The understanding of local residents is essential to the development of important defense facilities. The ministry should proceed with due diligence.

Even if the deployment of units to the Nansei Islands proceeds, they will not function if the infrastructure that the SDF can use is limited. It is hoped that work such as expanding runways and securing water depth at ports will proceed in a planned manner.

In Ishigaki, among other municipalities in the Sakishima Islands, progress is being made in drawing up evacuation guidelines in the event of a contingency, but the process has been slow on Okinawa Island. The government needs to support the efforts of the prefectural and municipal governments and expedite discussions to work out the details of a plan for evacuating residents from the island.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 28, 2022)