Japan’s military performed 25 missions in 2020 in defense of US ships or planes, a sign of the growing integration of two of Asia’s most powerful armed forces.
The number of what Japan calls “asset protection” missions was up from 14 in 2019 amid a “severe security environment,” according to an announcement from Japan’s Ministry of Defense.
The Japanese military said the 25 missions involved Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) protecting US Navy ships on four occasions while those ships were gathering information on ballistic missiles or other warning or surveillance activities. In 21 instances, the missions involved protecting US aircraft that were in joint training with their Japanese counterparts.
Japanese authorities would not say when or where the missions took place, only that they “contributed to the defense of Japan.” American and Japanese forces participated in a wide range of exercises last year in and around Japan and as far away as the Indian Ocean.
A US Air Force B-1 Lancer and US F-16 fighters from Misawa Air Base, Japan, conducted bilateral joint training with Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-2s off the coast of northern Japan, April 22, 2020.
Defense analysts said if a hostile power took on the United States military in any of the asset protection missions, Japanese forces could hit back at that foe. “If American assets were suddenly attacked then the SDF would be expected to counter attack to prevent follow-up attacks on US vessels or planes,” said Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University in Japan.
However, Japanese security expert Narushige Michishita, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, said it was unlikely the forces faced any real danger of hostilities.
“Certainly, some countries’ forces conduct dangerous maneuvers during US-Japan exercises, so the Americans and the Japanese might have experienced a few unnerving events on some occasions,” he said.
But both experts said the SDF announcement indicates the growing importance of the US-Japan security relationship amid a time of increased threats in the region, and it sends an important message to potential adversaries.
“The point is that two forces are now regularly operating very closely together, and that they will be able to do the same in wartime or under stressed environment. The capability to do so will certainly enhance deterrence against potential aggressive actions against Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan,” Michishita said.
“It’s a more dangerous (contingency) than was permitted six years ago,” said Wallace.