What can 2 MSDF ships do off Somalia?..

Halkaan ka akhri

The Maritime Self-Defense Force is expected to face great difficulties in protecting Japan-related ships off Somalia as it must fulfill its mission with just two destroyers.

The MSDF will therefore have to forge cooperative ties with warships from other nations on antipiracy missions including exchanging pertinent information and flexibly coordinating operations.

The MSDF started its mission Monday off the African nation. More than 2,000 Japan-related ships–vessels to be guarded by the MSDF destroyers–sail in the waters in question.

In Monday’s escort operation, three vessels carrying cars and two tankers, which were sailing from near Oman into the Gulf of Aden, were chosen as the first to be granted protection by the two MSDF destroyers–the Sazanami and the Samidare.

A senior MSDF officer expressed a sense of relief after hearing of the first mission. “With five ships, the line of the convoy is not too long and the two destroyers will be sufficient to guard them,” the officer said.

It is extremely rare for MSDF ships to form a convoy with private-sector commercial vessels. As such convoys will comprise ships with different speeds and sizes, it will be a cause for constant concern among the crew of the destroyers to ensure safe passage through the zone of about 900 kilometers.

If many ships form a convoy with a long-line, it brings with it higher risks of attack from pirates.

But if the MSDF limits itself to guarding five or so ships at a time, numerous Japanese or Japanese-related ships will end up having to sail through the area unguarded.

According to the Defense Ministry, it takes about five days for the MSDF to make a return trip guarding ships in the patrol zone.

If the MSDF continues escorting five or so ships in each operation, it will be able to guard 10 ships in five days or about 730 ships a year.

But according to the Japanese Shipowners’ Association, a total of 2,103 Japanese-related ships sailed through the zone last year. Under the current situation, the MSDF is capable of guarding only one-third of these ships.

The MSDF aims to gradually broaden the kinds of ships it selects for protection and to increase collaboration with other countries operating naval vessels in the zone.

But it is still far from certain whether the MSDF will take part in convoys comprising dozens of ships.

There were 111 pirate attacks in the zone last year. On March 22, the Jasmine Ace, a vehicle-carrying ship belonging to Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., was fired on by pirates about 1,500 kilometers south of the zone in which the MSDF destroyers are operating.

The range in which pirates have been active is expanding quickly, presenting an increasingly serious problem for antipiracy operations.

The area in which the Jasmine Ace was attacked is a very important route for maritime traffic traveling via South Africa’s Cape Town. It is as important as a route connecting the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

To cope with the new development, the government plans to send an MSDF P-3C patrol aircraft to cover this wider stretch of sea.

The government envisages that the aircraft will monitor the movement of pirates from the air and provide the information to navies participating in the antipiracy missions off Somalia, after signing a status of forces agreement with Djibouti, which neighbors Somalia.

To this end, the government will need to facilitate mutual cooperation with the navies of the United States, countries in the European Union and others among the 20 nations and regional blocs participating in the antipiracy operations.

It may be especially hard to collaborate with the navies of Kenya and Turkey, since the MSDF has never held joint drills with the navies of these countries.

Hideaki Kaneda, formerly commander of the MSDF’s fleet escort force, said: “Though it’s a matter of course that the framework of maritime policing actions should be complied with, it’s important for the MSDF to show a cooperative stance. For example, if other countries’ ships seek help, the destroyers should fly its helicopters to the relevant area to collect information.

“The accumulated effect of these minor actions will lead to the building of trustful relations,” he said.

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Limits on MSDF destroyers

The MSDF destroyers are only allowed to protect Japan-linked vessels. However, many ships with no link to Japan sail through the Gulf of Aden. What can the MSDF destroyers do if they are asked to help these unrelated ships?

In October 2007, a U.S. Navy destroyer received a distress call from a Panama-registered chemical tanker owned by a Japanese company. The Golden Nori was hijacked by pirates, and it took about 1-1/2 months for the tanker and its crew to be freed. However, at one point, the U.S. destroyer was able to sink pirate boats in the vicinity of the tanker.

In the case of the MSDF destroyers, they can protect vessels fulfilling any one of the following three conditions: ships that are Japan-registered; ships operated by Japanese companies; or ships that have Japanese crew.

The Golden Nori is a Japan-linked ship. According to a senior official of the Defense Ministry, in a case like that of the Golden Nori in which an MSDF destroyer receives a distress call from a Japan-linked ship not sailing in a convoy of ships protected by an armed escort, the MSDF destroyers would first send a helicopter out on a reconnaissance mission.

MSDF destroyers are only allowed to use weapons for issuing a warning, in self-defense or to make an emergency evacuation. Therefore, if a ship sending a distress signal has already been boarded by pirates by the time the helicopter arrives, it will be difficult for the destroyer to tackle the situation.

Even if an MSDF destroyer came across pirate ships near the threatened ship, the only thing it would be able to do would be to contact navy vessels of the United States or other countries.

In February, the U.S. Navy received a call for help from a commercial ship registered in the Marshall Islands, and sent a cruiser to the site. Servicemen from the cruiser boarded a nearby pirate ship and took seven pirates into custody.

If an MSDF destroyer received a similar call from a ship under attack from pirates, it would be able to send a helicopter even if the ship was not Japan-related. However, as the possibility such a pirate attack could actually be a feint with the objective of attacking the Japanese fleet after the helicopter left the destroyer, it is likely that the MSDF destroyer would end up asking naval ships of other countries for help in such scenarios.

The senior Defense Ministry official said: “We can’t operate like other countries as long as our use of weapons is limited. We need to get started and have a look at what we can actually do, and that’s the difficult mission that lies ahead.”

(1, Apr. 2009)
Sourse Daily Yomiuri
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