ARMING WITHOUT AIMING? CHALLENGES FOR JAPAN’S AMPHIBIOUS CAPABILITY

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Benjamin Schreer is professor and head of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a policy roundtable “The Future of Japanese Security and Defense” from our sister publication, the
Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.


A centerpiece in Japan’s defense modernization efforts designed to deter a resurgent China is the development of an amphibious warfare capability. The Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) is building up an Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB). Its primary mission is to “conduct full-fledged amphibious operations for swift landing, recapturing, and securing in the case of illegal occupation of remote islands.” This is a direct reference to China’s growing power projection and assertiveness around Japan’s southwestern Nansei Islands. Deterring China has evolved into a key task for the JSDF and amphibious forces are considered to play an essential role in this strategy. This focus is hardly surprising since Japan is a “frontline” state within the “first island chain” straddling the Western Pacific, and it lies directly within the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) inner threat ring of precision strike and other systems.

Japan’s rationale for investing significant resources in an amphibious warfighting capability seems obvious. China poses a major strategic and military challenge to Japan. While the PLA does not yet have the capacity to invade the four main Japanese islands, the occupation of “islands at the southwestern end of the archipelago is becoming a realistic possibility.” Moreover, Japanese ARDB advocates stress the opportunity for enhanced U.S.-Japanese amphibious cooperation. Some U.S. experts also welcome the emergence of a “Marine-like” JSDF capability as a means for Japan to become a more useful ally for the United States by alleviating critical U.S. amphibious shipping shortfalls and by contributing to an “amphibious architecture” to counter China’s “grey-zone” activities across the Western Pacific.


However, this paper argues that Japan’s amphibious capability faces major strategic and operational challenges. The central question is which strategic-operational objectives the ARDB is supposed to serve and whether those goals are achievable in a rapidly changing operating environment for amphibious forces. Posing this question delivers a less convincing picture of the strategic utility of the ARDB in its present focus and configuration.

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