Australia’s selection of a French bid to replace the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) Collins class submarines over Japan’s competing offer in April 2016 was an opportunity lost to reshape the regional security architecture. It would have drawn Japan and Australia much closer together and given real substance to bilateral defense ties and offered a potential three-way defense linkage with the United States (US). Nevertheless, it’s still possible to achieve the strategic objective of vastly improved Australia-Japan defense ties by using each nation’s new amphibious forces as the linking mechanism.
Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe was correct that a Japan-Australia submarine deal would have forced Japan’s defense policy to look further outwards – as Abe has endeavored to do since taking office. Japan views Australia as its main strategic regional ally, and getting closer to Australia would also check a perceived Australian drift towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC) based on economic ties between the two countries.
However, PM Abe probably wanted the deal more than anyone else in the Japanese government. Even MHI, the principal submarine builder, was ambivalent about taking on the challenge, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) was concerned about giving up its crown jewels of submarine technology.
‘Buying Japan’, made sense strategically. But business-wise it was a stretch given Japan’s lack of experience in the sharp elbowed defense business, much less the complex business of building submarines overseas with a foreign partner – and dealing with a temperamental Australian labor force.
Indeed, one wonders how both sides would have felt about each other once the inevitable headaches occurred. Losing the deal might have been a blessing in disguise.
Coming together using amphibious ships instead of submarines
Berthed within sight of each other at Pearl Harbor during the RIMPAC 16 exercise, the amphibious ships HMAS Canberra and JS Hyuga, the cornerstones of Australia’s and Japan’s respective amphibious forces, showed a way to move beyond the failed submarine deal.
In recent years, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has developed a serviceable amphibious force that can already conduct company-sized operations and soon will be able to deploy a battalion-sized Army unit. Meanwhile, Japan has put together its own rudimentary amphibious force that is capable of limited operations and aims to have an Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade ready for operations by 2018.
Each nation is taking a different approach to amphibious development, with the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s (JSDF’s) effort more ad-hoc owing to the tentative nature of cooperation between the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) and JMSDF, while Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has done its best to stand clear – in line with its longstanding preference for dogfighting at 30,000 feet. Nevertheless, Australia and Japan have amphibious forces that can conduct operations to a reasonable degree.
‘Cross-fit Training’ and forcing a joint capability
Amphibious training and operations are qualitatively different from ‘single service’ exercises and resemble ‘cross-fit’ training, i.e exercising air, sea, and ground capabilities at the same time. By comparison, sending a JGSDF infantry platoon to participate in a Talisman Saber exercise or even having a RAN and a JMSDF ship sail together seems unambitious.
Amphibious operations, by virtue of combining the activities of Marines (or soldiers acting like Marines), Navy, and Air Forces, can also jump start ‘jointness’ – the ability of a military’s component services to operate smoothly together. This is a shortcoming of armed forces everywhere, and especially in the Indo-Pacific region even while its geography and operational requirements mandate such capability.
And looking outwards, bilateral and multilateral amphibious operations tend to more effectively develop jointness between partner militaries given the complex interactions required to maneuver ships, aircraft, and ground units in the same area.
Additional payoff from amphibious capability development
Amphibious training develops an immediately useful capability by virtue of a military being able to conduct operations in coastal, littoral areas – and move personnel and equipment from ship to shore and vice versa. This is easier said than done but is an essential capability – especially for responding to frequently occurring natural disasters in the Indo-Pacific region and conducting Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HADR) operations.
The ADF already put its new amphibious capability to good use in Fiji last year following a destructive typhoon. And in late 2013, the JSDF sent its newly put-together amphibious force to the Philippines to participate in typhoon disaster recovery efforts as part of Operation Damayan.
One should also remember the beneficial political and psychological knock-on effects of sophisticated military-to-military training and exercises, especially when two nation’s services conduct real world operations together. This contrasts with pro-forma, almost ritualistic training that does little more than convince the parties that they are friends, and mistakenly think they can do more than they actually can.
Bringing about an Australia-Japan amphibious linkage
Compared to building submarines, deepening a Japan-Australia relationship using amphibious forces is easy, and affordable.
As a first step, Japanese and Australian planners should put together and conduct a JSDF-ADF amphibious exercise (to be held bi-annually) – either in the vicinity of Australia, up in Japan, or perhaps around Guam. Such exercises are complex, so start small, and even a couple ships – say, the HMAS Canberra and a Japanese Landing Ship Tank (LST) – will do at the start. Give the exercise an HADR focus with the objective of being able to operate together on actual HADR operations. Only the most churlish nations or opponents will object.
Both sides will need to conduct the necessary joint planning that goes into the exercise, to include working out joint electronic communications, and then handle the essential ‘cross decking’ of each side’s aircraft and personnel along with ship to shore movements during the execution phase of the exercise. This is not easy, but it pays considerable dividends in the form of improved operational skill and confidence and a genuine ability to operate together – rather than in parallel – that does not yet exist between Japan and Australia, or between most other regional nations for that matter.
And afterwards, for a real pay-off, look for opportunities to join Japanese and Australian forces together in the event of a real world HADR contingency – an event likelihood to occur rather often in the Indo-Pacific region.
A US role?
While it’s important for US Navy (USN) and US Marine Corps (USMC) observers and advisors to be involved in the exercise, and maybe even include an American ship in a later segment of the event, it is essential that Australia and Japan take the lead. The Americans have always been the ‘big dogs’ in Asia-Pacific amphibious activities – tending to overshadow everybody else. Instead, the ‘spokes’ of what has traditionally been a ‘hub and spoke’ effort centered on US amphibious forces need to start operating with each other if they are to improve — not to mention the political benefits of regional nations upgrading their defenses without American prodding.
Don’t wait. Use the MEU/ARG’s right away
Both Japanese and Australian amphibious ships and ‘Marines’ are already capable of linking up with US’s amphibious Marine Expeditionary Unit/Amphibious Ready Groups (MEU/ARGs) in the region – either the 31st MEU, transiting MEU’s, or even the new MEU/ARG reportedly bound for Asia. Even an informal short-term arrangement at first – such as inserting Japanese and Australian amphibious ships into a MEU/ARG, and ‘cross-decking’ aircraft and troops is doable and beneficial. This interaction with the MEU/ARG can be done anytime, and separately from the aforementioned exercise.
It’s worth remembering that just getting out and doing something – rather than talking about what one is going to do, has a benefit of its own – setting a precedent and making the next, more challenging steps easier.
Including the neighbors and looking ahead
In the opinion of this writer, the US should encourage the firming up of a Japan-Australia amphibious effort, and then start a measured effort to include other friendly regional nations’ amphibious forces to join in the Australia-Japan amphibious program. Indonesia, Singapore, New Zealand, Vietnam, Taiwan, India, and a handful of other regional nations have amphibious forces of varying capabilities and are prime candidates for inclusion.
And looking out a few years, the Japan-Australia amphibious linkage might serve as the nucleus of an amphibious ‘RIMPAC’ held in Darwin, Shoalwater Bay or even Guam – if the US can ever bring to fruition amphibious training ranges in the Northern Marianas (CNMI). However, given the uncertainties for movement on the CNMI project, the ADF might consider building up Shoalwater Bay, or even Darwin, to serve as regional amphibious training center. East Timor has also been mentioned as a possible amphibious training location.
Another possibility for capitalizing on the Japan-Australia amphibious effort includes establishing a regional HADR force, based on willing amphibious forces joining together. Malaysian defense strategists and Malaysia’s Defense Minister in fact proposed an ASEAN Ready Group along these lines a couple years ago. Perhaps Japan and Australia can resuscitate this idea.
ADF and JSDF liaison officers essential
A full-time US liaison/advisor presence was key to the rapid progress both the ADF and JSDF made in building amphibious capabilities in surprisingly short time frames.
To give the bilateral Japan-Australia amphibious effort impetus and ensure ongoing momentum, both sides need to place permanent Army and Navy (and ideally, Air Force) liaison officers with their respective amphibious units. These aren’t officers who only answer the mail, but instead are the sorts with drive, imagination, and persuasiveness who can move along bilateral amphibious development and linkages between JSDF and ADF.
Progress will be easy to gauge. The day Japanese and Australian amphibious ships are operating together, and with troops inter-mixed and aircraft operating off each other’s decks (and even with the Americans nowhere in sight), and nobody thinks any of this unusual, one will know progress is being made. Indeed, get the amphibious business right, and nobody will remember the submarine deal that slipped away.
Colonel Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Corps officer and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies
*This article is based on a presentation delivered at the National Security College, The Australian National University in January 2017
Feature Image Credit: Colonel Grant Newsham, USMC (retd)
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