The more military activity and weapons appear near the Russian borders, the more illusory the prospect of concluding a mutually acceptable agreement between Russia and Japan will become, writes Andrey Gubin, Associate Professor of the Department of International Relations of the Eastern Institute of the Far Eastern Federal University.
In late June — early July 2021, the 36th Orient Shield joint exercise between the US Armed Forces and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces took place. Their main goal was to practice joint actions involving their units, as well as to conduct multi-domain and cross-domain operations. The use of cyber and outer space for solving combat missions were included in the scenario of the exercises. The main phase included the delivery of long-range strikes with the help of aircraft, the firing of ground forces weaponry and the transfer of military equipment by sea. The exercises were held simultaneously at several training grounds in different parts of Japan, in total, about 3,000 military personnel from both countries took part. Notably, the Americans, who arrived from the mainland of the United States and Hawaii, were quarantined for two weeks at the Sagami and Fuji points. Along with them arrived several dozen pieces of military equipment, including attack helicopters, which were unloaded from the Fisher Marine Command ship based on the US Marine Corps Iwakuni.
Orient Shield — 2021 took place amid increased PRC activity in the Taiwan Strait, which prompted a wary reaction in Washington and Tokyo. According to State Department spokesman Ned Price, “We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives.” In addition, Deputy Prime Minister of the Japanese government Taro Aso noted that “Tokyo will have to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion from the PRC, so we are closely watching the situation.” It is noteworthy that the new version of the White Paper on National Defense Issues, published in 2021, for the first time mentions the extreme importance of the situation around Taiwan not only for the national security of Japan, but also for the stability of the entire world community.
At the same time, it is likely that this time, the “23rd rebellious province” (according to Beijing) was not the only object of close attention of Tokyo and Washington. According to representatives of the US Army, during the Orient Shield exercise, joint firing of the 17th Field Artillery Brigade of the US Armed Forces and the 4th Field Artillery Brigade of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces took place. The location of these events is extremely indicative — the Yausubetsu training ground in the eastern part of the island of Hokkaido (about 50 km from the state border with Russia in the Sovetsky Strait). Previously, similar firing was carried out here by a US Marine Corps unit during the Northern Viper exercise in March 2020.
The Japanese used the M270 multiple launch rocket launchers produced under an American license, and the Americans used the M142 HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System). By and large, these systems differ only in the platform — the first is on a tracked chassis, and the second is on a wheeled chassis for greater mobility. The launchers themselves are almost identical (the M142 is actually a “half” of the M270) and can use the same ammunition. A more significant difference lies in the fact that the Japanese system is designed primarily for firing over areas at a distance of up to 70 km in a salvo of 12 unguided rockets. The American devices are mainly designed to launch ATACMS (Army Tactical Missiles) at a range of up to 300 km (one such missile on each).
However, this is not enough for the American military — it is assumed that HIMARS will become carriers of the so-called PrSM (Precision Strike Missile), two such missiles can be placed on one launcher. While in tests of the PRSM in May 2021, a range of 400 km was reached. However, in the plans of the US Defense Department an increase to 700 is desired, and possibly up to 1,000 km (and the most daring estimates end at around 1,770 km), as well as ensuring the defeat of manoeuvring surface targets by installing a more advanced guidance system. These tactical missiles are expected to enter service by 2025. However, their estimated number and location have not yet been disclosed. At the same time, in light of the ATACMS tests by units of the Marine Corps in Okinawa, as well as the priorities of American military strategy, we can assume that the new weapon will be deployed primarily on this “southern” flank. The chances of the appearance of American shorter-range missiles on the island of Hokkaido on a permanent basis are still rather vague — there is only one operational facility in the area of Chitose airport. At the same time, there are no formal obstacles to their placement in Hokkaido on a rotational basis.
Even more alarming is the possibility of the Japan Self-Defence Forces acquiring high-precision surface-to-surface missiles. There is no reliable data on the supply of Tokyo ATACMS, but it seems that the country’s leadership may be interested in acquiring them, and in the future, in more advanced PrSMs. Undoubtedly, this kind of weapon cannot be considered purely defensive and its possession contradicts Article 9 of the Constitution of the country. Difficulties will also arise with the observance of the Missile Technology Control Regime (where, incidentally, Russia presides in 2021-22). However, given the increasingly broader approach of Tokyo to the interpretation of its main political document, as well as the informal nature of the MTCR, this is not so impossible. For example, the Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces have already received American F-35 multipurpose fighters, capable of using high-precision ammunition for strikes against ground and sea targets.
It should be kept in mind that the Americans are actively offering their operational-tactical missiles for export. So, in October 2020, Washington approved the sale to Taiwan of HIMARS launchers and 64 ATACMS missiles, previously supplied to the Republic of Korea and Singapore. In addition, some of the M270 installations of the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Forces can be upgraded to the ER-GMLRS (Extended Range Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System) level, which will enable them to hit single targets using GPS guidance at a range of up to 135 km.
Undoubtedly, Russia understands the importance of the “Pacific rim” in the context of attempts by a number of countries to change the status quo and strengthens the defences of the Kuril Islands, including through new combat systems capable of hitting air and surface targets at ranges of hundreds of kilometres. Probably, some “hotheads” in the Japanese military, with the explicit encouragement of their American colleagues, see this as a threat to Tokyo’s national interests. At the same time, their attempts to implement the strategy of denial of access and restriction of manoeuvre (A2AD — anti-access, area denial) in this direction are unlikely to have a positive effect. Moreover, the more military activity and weapons appear near the Russian borders, the more illusory the prospect of concluding a mutually acceptable agreement between Russia and Japan will become.