Thursday, 5 April 2012

Eastern Promise – the rise of a new alliance with Japan?

There were reports in the Daily Telegraph that the UK is poised to sign a new Defence co-operation treaty with Japan, and potentially usher in the door to a new era of co-operation between the two nations. (Link is HERE)
The paper claimed, without further explanation, that this could lead to an increased UK SSN presence in the region, while it could also lead to further co-operation with defence industry, and potentially herald some sales of T26 frigates too. This potentially heralds an exciting development for the UK and its engagement within the region – which for too long has been an area seemingly occupying a lower priority for UK defence engagement.

Japan as a nation is going through what feels to be a change in attitude towards its Self Defence Forces. Traditionally, since WW2, the Japanese have maintained strong and capable forces able to deter external aggression, but which lack the reach and logistics support to operate far from the Japanese home islands. A latent pacifism, merged with the realisation that the USA could act as a guarantor of Japans ultimate security has led to the growth of capable but underappreciated armed forces.

Since the early part of the last decade though, the first tentative steps have seemingly been taken to show the re-emergence of Japan as a more regional power. The deployment of a tanker to the Indian Ocean after the 9/11 attacks, and a small ground contingent in Iraq, albeit in a peace support rather than combat role paved the way for further engagement in the region. Today, Japanese destroyers operate in the anti-piracy role, and recently Japan has created its first operating base in the region, flying P3 Orions for Djibouti (source is HERE)

This author has worked with the JSDF on a couple of occasions, most notably in Iraq, and found them to be a competent and professional military. The challenge appeared in the past to be one of convincing the Japanese people of the importance of the SDF, and of supporting their military. This appears to have been rendered less relevant by the Tsunami of 2011, in which the JSDF played a huge role in the disaster recovery operations. Speaking to acquaintances in the JSDF, Humphrey is left with the impression that the disaster led to an increased level of support by the Japanese population for their military, and a growing acceptance of their ability to play a part on the global stage.

What then does an alliance mean for the UK and Japan? In reality any such accord would take some years to become genuinely meaningful – when establishing enhanced defence relationships, there is always a period as both nations try to build trust, and establish the areas where mutually beneficial co-operation can occur. There is also a need for time to allow the personnel to build working relationships and identify what can best benefit their nations.

Any accord would probably see enhanced co-operation in the 5-10 year period, and not necessarily immediately. However, what it could do is benefit the UK in several ways:

Burden Sharing: The JMSDF is a very capable navy, and one which has high end vessels capable of conducting a wide range of operations. Closer co-operation could lead to an increase in deployments to unstable areas where the UK has shared strategic interests, but which it lacks resources to enforce those interests. Alternatively, it could lead to additional resources being deployed to areas where the UK already operates to reduce risks – a good example would be in the Arabian Gulf where the UK held a very successful series of joint exercises with the JMSDF MCMV units recently, and which established a good precedent for future co-operation. In the event of things going wrong in that region, it is useful if the allied nations operating there have worked together previously, and understand each others operating procedures.

UK strategic reach: The Asia Pacific rim is perhaps the region in which UK defence is least active. This author is preparing a piece for Think Defence on wider UK engagement in the area (which should be published after Easter). The main form of UK engagement is currently through the Five Power Defence Arrangement, which while a successful alliance, primarily focuses UK reach to Singapore and not beyond. As such, any alliance with Japan increases the likelihood of a more regular return to the South China Sea, and other traditional RN stomping grounds which have not been seen by many sailors for some years.

Similarly, the UK remains engaged in the situation with North Korea – as one of the few major powers to have an embassy in Pyongyang, and also to hold a post on the UN Armistice Commission in South Korea, the UK has influence and interests in the wider region. An enhanced relationship with Japan helps strengthen the UKs wider relationships, as a plausible argument can be made for our reason for engagement with Korea, and for justifying the increased exercises and links between the two nations. 

Reality Check

That said, it is important to be realistic about how much can really be achieved by the signing of this accord. This authors strictly personal view is that it is going to be unlikely to see Japan shifting allegiance to the Eurofighter, and ditching its F35 buy. Indeed, the likelihood of Japan purchasing Eurofighter was always slim, when one considers that the near entirety of the Japanese military is either sourced from US derived designs, or designed to operate with the US.

Even so, there is the possibility of lower level co-operation which could lead to mutual projects of interest, but again it is unlikely to see the Japanese buying into the T26 design. The Japanese have their own national ship design capabilities that they would wish to protect, and its unlikely that their government would willingly sacrifice this hard won capability in order to buy into the T26. What is more likely is the possibility of co-operation in either weapons or ancillary materials – for instance engines or propulsion systems.

The UK may aspire to the deployment of SSNs into the region, but this feels more the pipe dreams of an amateur defence correspondent (which sadly seems to be par for the DT these days) than based on any tangible facts. The UK SSN flotilla is going to be six strong for the next 2-3 years while the 2nd and 3rd A boats work up. In reality, the UK is able to support two, gusting three fully worked up SSNs at any one time (which before people get too worked up is pretty good compared to all other SSN operators bar the USN). Take away the East of Suez vessel likely to be doing other tasking, and the requirement to protect SSBNs and conduct other tasks of interest, and you quickly run out of hulls to send to Japan on wider exercises, without taking risk of meeting other commitments around the globe.

What would seem to this author (who has absolutely no knowledge of possible deployments) would be that any programme would see extensions to deployments east of Suez to take in visits to Japan. Traditionally the visit to Japan was as far as a Far East deployment would get prior to heading home – so it may be the case that either vessels head out and loiter in the region, or alternatively that exercises are programmed elsewhere.

The presence of MCMVs, MPAs and surface escorts in the Middle East / horn of Africa region is an excellent opportunity to boost further co-operation in this area. Humphrey would personally see an increase in exercises here, rather than wider deployments to each other’s home base as being the most likely outcome here.

If confirmed, then this treaty represents a potentially interesting piece of good news. It reaffirms the UKs long term strategic interests in the Asia Pacific region, while simultaneously helping support Japan to take further steps towards shouldering a greater share of the regional security burden. It will not significantly change either nations defence relationship immediately, but over time it could help to become a useful reason for the UK to justify maintaining a military presence and capability able to reach the area. More broadly, it helps reaffirm to other partners, such as the US that even though the UK military has reduced in size, the ability to take an implied interest in the region, means that it should be taken seriously as an ally.

The US, as it shifts towards seeing the Pacific as its primary theatre of influence will be looking for signs of the UKs level of commitment and support. The fact that the UK is seeking to remain engaged will count for something, as it will show that London remains a globally focused nation in outlook and attitude.


  1. Enjoy your blog, sadly all newspaper defence correspondents seem to have no actual knowledge.

  2. Lets hope that this is handled more sensitively than previous Naval relations with Japan.

    There was a time when, trying to promote sea dart to Japan, a JMSDF delegation were received on HMS Gloucester given the full N2N treatment building a and received a presentation on how the system had saved the USS-Missouri from a Silkworm attack. Strangely, this led to a strained atmosphere..... and no-one (navy / civ / industry knew why.

    Indeed, the DESO expert of the day was amazed when the Mighty Mo's WW2 role was pointed out on his return to Stuart House.

  3. Words on a page

    Meaningless without steel, sinews and fire behind it.

    The UK appears to be running two defence strategies at the moment.
    Public statements are very "Global Guardian"
    Long term actions are very, if not "strategic raiding", navy centric.

    This plan maes no sense under current models.

    So either current models are wrong, or this announcement is words on a page.

    Current plans see our shipyards working flat out for the next 8 years, when was the last time we built a warfighting armoured vehicle?
    If that is maintained for another 8 years after, and another 8 after that.

    Well, we could have a far east fleet, never mind a far east ship.

  4. With a continually shinking fleet, the idea that the RN is going to increase deployments to the Asia Pacific rim sounds like a red herring to me. Unless the Type 23s are replaced on at least a 1:1 basis (unlikely), we simply will not have the critical mass to be a serious global player. If you compare the inventory of the RN with that of the JMSDF, the disparity is glaring.

  5. I am pleased to hear about your upcoming piece at Think Defence. I have just posted my ideas on why Europeans should be more concerned with Asian defense and security issues.

    Has any of this kind of thinking influenced the recent PM tour?

  6. The idea of deployment of a single SSN or T-45 to Japanese waters as a real military option is simply pointless. In terms of the difference a single boat makes in an environment of the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean Fleets before you mention USN.

    The odd single show the flag visit, no problem and those have happened, as much to encourage sales of some subsystems. We keep saying we want the T-26 to be built in a way with support from others the JMSDF is not going to build T-26 but is there any room for any co-operation?

    Mutual support in the Gulf and Indian Ocean makes sense.
    Us pretending we have room for any military influence in North East Asia, is self delusion.