Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force (a Navy by any other name) will continue its presence in the Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa for at least another year.
Japanese naval vessels currently provide escorts to merchant shipping off the coast of Somalia.
MSDF to take on bigger antipiracy burden
The Maritime Self-Defense Force’s antipiracy escort operation off Somalia has been extended by one more year, with one destroyer set to join a combined naval task force with the United States and other nations late this year. Currently, two MSDF destroyers have been deployed in the area along with P-3C maritime patrol aircraft.
Under the MSDF’s mission, which was extended for a fourth time Wednesday, one of the ships will also join the so-called CTF151 international naval task force to respond to piracy in shipping lanes near Somalia. Although piracy-related damage has been reduced, the MSDF’s burden has become heavier as the area covered by the operation is set to be expanded.
At this time of year, strong monsoons from the African continent blow into the Gulf of Aden off Somalia, where MSDF vessels and aircraft operate.
“Visibility is poor due to dust clouds, so we are fully attentive in monitoring suspicious vessels,” Tsutomu Iwasawa, commander of the MSDF’s sixth fleet escort division, told The Yomiuri Shimbun in a phone interview on Saturday.
Cap. Iwasawa, who commands the destroyers Hamagiri and Akebono, said the two ships escorted commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden under rough conditions on Saturday, with strong winds blowing at over 15 meters per second. He said it took about two days to pass through dangerous waters stretching about 900 kilometers, during which the ship’s crew used binoculars and radar to monitor the situation.
In the latest mission, the crew intercepted several emergency reports on international radio of other commercial vessels being chased by small pirate ships.
As the reports came from vessels sailing a few hundred kilometers away, naval ships from other nations handled the cases.
However, Iwasawa said, “If it [a commercial vessel being chased by pirates] was within easy reach, we’d have to fly a chopper into the area to confirm the situation there, making us tense.”
Key traffic zone
Sandwiched between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf of Aden is a strategic zone for maritime traffic linking Europe and Asia through the Suez Canal.
Of vessels directly connected with Japan, about 2,000 ships sail through the gulf, transporting about 1.5 million cars, or about 20 percent of Japan’s auto exports.
As damage from Somalia-based pirates became more noticeable, countries concerned dispatched naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden and neighboring waters in response to a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in June 2008.
The Japanese government sent two MSDF destroyers in March 2009 in accordance with its order for maritime policing operations. In June that same year, the Diet enacted an antipiracy law authorizing Self-Defense Forces to protect any commercial ship from pirates, regardless of whether the ship has any connection with Japan.
The Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties opposed the law’s enactment, saying, “Pirates should be dealt with by the Japan Coast Guard.”
Thanks to such international dispatches, piracy-related damage has been on the decline, falling to 75 cases in 2012 from over 200 in 2009.
The MSDF has sent a combined total of 30 destroyers, 26 P-3C aircraft and about 8,000 personnel so far. The number of commercial escort operations totaled 471 as of the end of last month.
According to a government source, there were 45 cases in which a destroyer or P-3C aircraft spotted and intercepted a suspicious ship. A spokesperson of the Japanese Shipowners’ Association said, “We are thankful for the MSDF’s work.”
However, pirates are now targeting commercial vessels off the Arabian Peninsula instead of the Gulf of Aden, which has stricter antipiracy patrols. In response, the United States and Britain have teamed up with other countries to form the CTF151 to patrol a much wider area.
At the request of U.S. military forces, the MSDF will dispatch one destroyer operating there to the multilateral task force later this year.
As a result, the MSDF will only have one destroyer available to escort commercial vessels, thereby increasing their burden.
“The SDF’s international cooperation activities have so far been mainly in the rear-area logistic support, such as building roads. By joining the CTF, through which we can directly contribute to establishing safety, we can make a greater appeal to the international community about our contributions,” said a senior Defense Ministry official.