The SDF Dispatches to the Middle East --- History and Significance

Ippeita Nishida
Senior Research Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation


This article will give an overview of the history of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) deployment to the Middle East and discuss through the examination of its background and lessons learned the significance for Japan's security policy of the SDF deployment in the region.

The SDF dispatch abroad began with its minesweeping operations in the Persian Gulf after the end of the Gulf War (1991.1-2). The mission was followed by activities sanctioned by the series of special measures laws, such as assistance for the reconstruction of Iraq and replenishment support activities in the Arabian Sea as part of anti-terrorism efforts. Even today, the SDF's overseas activities are evolving mainly in the Middle East, and Japan's structural dependence on this region for energy resources remains unchanged, while the character and capabilities of the SDF's overseas activities have changed significantly.

In the following, we will first review the history of the SDF dispatches to the Middle East, focusing on the outline of each mission and the main characteristics. Next, we will examine the impact of these accumulated experiences on Japan's foreign and security policies and specific changes they have made in relations with foreign militaries, thereby clarifying their significance. To obtain an overview of the SDF engagement, the areas this article covers are confined to the so-called MENAP1(the Middle East, North Africa plus the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Likewise, the sea area to be covered is the Western Indian Ocean including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Persian Gulf unless otherwise specified.

History of the SDF Dispatches to the Middle East

The SDF dispatches to the Middle East have so far numbered 14 in all, including the dispatch of the Japan Disaster Relief Team and short-term missions for humanitarian aid (Table 1).2 Of these, two have legal justification in the "Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Defense" and the "Self-Defense Forces Act";3 four in the "Act concerning Cooperation for United Nations Peace-Keeping Operations and Other Operations" (of which two were humanitarian goods transportation support); one in the "Law on Punishment of and Measures against Acts of Piracy"; three in the acts on special measures, and another four in the "Japan Disaster Relief Law".

Table 1. The SDF Dispatches to the MENAP

The following summarizes the major and recent SDF dispatches to the Middle East.

  • MSDF Dispatch to the Persian Gulf (1991. 6-9)
    In response to a strong request for personnel contributions from the United States and the international community, the Japanese government, under the Self-Defense Forces Act's Article 99 (currently Article 84-2) on "Elimination of Mines, etc.," dispatched, after the Gulf War ceasefire, a minesweeping squadron of the Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) to the Persian Gulf consisting of six ships: a minesweeper tender, a supply vessel, and minesweepers. The squadron carried out its minesweeping activities in the Persian Gulf for about four months. The usefulness of the MSDF's international cooperation was widely recognized by the Japanese policy-makers at that time, through the successful fulfillment of its overseas mission in the first military operation since the end of World War II. The mission provided the MSDF with an opportunity to verify its capability of deployment at distant seas,4 which laid the foundation of the subsequent missions in the Indian Ocean.
  • GSDF Dispatch to the Golan Heights (1996.2-2013.1)
    The Japanese government dispatched the Ground Self Defense Forces (GSDF) to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) established to maintain the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. The deployed GSDF units provided transportation support for other foreign troops responsible for ceasefire monitoring, and the command staff officers. This was the second SDF dispatch under the "Act on Cooperation with United Nations Peacekeeping Operations and Other Operations (the PKO Act)" that came into force in 1992, following that to the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC, 1992-93).5 Although the mission was forced to withdraw in January 2013 due to the intensifying civil war in Syria, its 17 years of contribution have made the record longest of the overseas SDF deployment, and, together with the experience in the subsequent dispatch to Iraq, shaped the character of the subsequent GSDF's overseas activities.6
  • MSDF Dispatch to the Indian Ocean (the former Act on Special Measures against Terrorism/the former Act on Special Measures concerning Implementation of Replenishment Support Activities towards the Anti-Terrorism Maritime Interdiction Operation) (2001.11-2007.11/2008.1-2010.2)
    To implement fuel and water replenishment support activities for the vessels of coalition forces engaged in maritime interdiction operation as part of the US war on terror, the Japanese government dispatched the MSDF destroyers and replenishment oilers to the Indian Ocean for eight years based on the two acts on special measures. The MSDF engaged in operations in cooperation with the Navies of advanced economies in the West participating in the US war on terror and Pakistan that was the only Islamic country participating in the anti-terrorism war. Contributing to the stability of sea lanes, the MSDF developed the capability to conduct operations in the Indian Ocean.
  • SDF Dispatch to Iraq (2003.12-2009.2)
    After the invasion of Iraq by the United States and other countries, the Japanese government dispatched the all three branches of the SDF to Iraq based on the "Act on Special Measures concerning Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance in Iraq". The GSDF carried out humanitarian reconstruction support activities such as water supply, medical care, and facility repairs in southern Iraqi city of Samawah, and actively promoted cooperation with ODA activities undertaken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Air Self Defense Forces (ASDF) transported supplies and personnel of the GSDF and other militaries, and evacuated Japanese press people to Kuwait, which became the first Rescue of Japanese Nationals Overseas (RJNO) operation. The activities in Iraq were conducted under the most unstable security conditions ever in the history of SDF overseas mission. Special efforts were made to promote close cooperation with the Dutch and Australian troops which provided protection and to win "hearts-and-minds" of the local residents through good will exchanges.
  • Counter-piracy Operations (2009.3-present)
    Due to the frequent occurrence of piracy off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden in the latter half of the 2000s, the MSDF has been sending a destroyer (initially two) and two patrol aircraft to secure the safe passage of Japanese and related vessels. The deployment was initiated as maritime security operations, but since July 2009 has been implemented as activities based on the Law on Punishment of and Measures against Acts of Piracy. On the MSDF frigate, Japan Coast Guard officers are on board as legal official. The MSDF air unit is working with the GSDF unit to form a joint operation at the Djibouti installation which was established in July 2011. Since December 2013, the dispatched forces have been participating in the multinational naval task force CTF151 (Combined Task Force 151).
  • International Peace Cooperation Assignment in Sinai Peninsula (2019.4-present)
    In the newly enacted "legislation for peace and security" (2016), a chapter on "International Peace Cooperation Assignments"7 was added to the PKO Act. The amendment acknowledges the SDP's participation in non-UN-controlled peacekeeping operations. Under this new provision, two GSDF officers have been working as command personnel in the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai (MFO). The Japanese government continues providing financial contributions to the MFO that started in 1988.
  • Middle East Intelligence Gathering Activities (2020.1-present)
    With increasing tensions between the United States and Iran in the background and in response to the request from the United States, Japan worked out its information-gathering activities based on Article 4 ("Investigation and Research") of the "Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Defense", instead of joining the Coalition of the Willing. To this end, the SDF has assigned a new mission to one of the two patrol aircraft stationed in Djibouti, currently engaged in counter-piracy operations, while dispatching another destroyer from Japan. The area of their activities is limited to the waters around the northern part of the Arabian Sea. SDF personnel are also advancing information sharing at the US Central Navy Command in Bahrain. In case attacks on Japanese-affiliated vessels happen, the necessary response will be taken under Article 82 of the Self-Defense Forces Act (maritime security operation).

Characteristics of the SDF Dispatches to the Middle East

Regarding SDF dispatches overseas, especially associated with international peace cooperation, the region of Africa may first come to mind, because many UN peacekeeping operations are underway there. In reality, however, SDF dispatches to Africa occurred just four times in all: Mozambique (1993), Congo (1994), South Sudan (2011), and Ghana (2014).8 Meanwhile, the Middle East is not only the destination of the first-ever SDF dispatch and the region where the SDF is currently conducting its various activities but also the region where the SDF has deployed more than anywhere else. All SDF dispatches based on acts on special measures were essentially made for the Middle East. They share the common characteristic of cooperation for US efforts to stabilize the region and therefore have political implications that cannot be found in other international peace cooperation.

Besides, the MENAP is the region where the SDP engaged in activities over a long period --- the Golan Heights mission (about 17 years), counter-piracy operations (about 11 years), and the Indian Ocean mission (a total of about 8 years).9 SDF's activities based on acts on special measures were large in scale and unique in nature. In Iraq, for example, a total of about 19,700 personnel of the three SDF branches were deployed over five years period, while about 13,800 and 2,400 respectively of mainly MSDF personnel were deployed under the former "Act on Special Measures against Terrorism" and the former "Act on Special Measures concerning Implementation of Replenishment Support Activities towards the Anti-Terrorism Maritime Interdiction Operation". On the other hand, Japan's largest dispatch to UN peacekeeping operations consisted of a total of about 4,000 GSDF personnel to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) for about five years. The difference is apparent.

Another characteristic of the SDF dispatches to the Middle East is their collaboration with troops of developed countries in the West. In Samawah in Iraq, the GSDF worked with the Dutch and Australian troops, and in the Indian Ocean, the MSDF engaged in fuel and water replenishment activities for naval vessels from France and other European countries. In recent UN peacekeeping operations, the main body of troops ordinarily comes from countries in South Asia and Africa; therefore, the SDF find little opportunity to conduct joint field operation with military forces of developed countries.

As is the case with the SDF's participation in CTF151 counter-piracy efforts, when Japan participates (or cooperates) in multinational military operations, the SDF does not come under the direct chain of command of foreign troops in order not to have its participation identified with the use of force. Although the SDF dispatches its personnel to the command, it adheres to the principle that their units follow their own chain of command. In this respect, the SDF dispatches to the Middle East are different from those to UN peacekeeping operations.10

Impact and Significance of the SDF Dispatches to the Middle East

[Law / Policy]

These SDF dispatches to the Middle East have had a wide range of impacts on Japan's foreign and security policies. In particular, the successful dispatch of the minesweeping squadron was the most significant in the sense that it led to the enactment in 1992 of the PKO Act. Earlier, the UN Peace Cooperation Bill was scrapped in 1990 in the midst of the Gulf War. Yet, the success of the four-month minesweeping mission in the Persian Gulf helped change Japanese public opinion that had been cautious about the SDF's international cooperation.11

Every dispatch of the PKO troops revealed the lack of adaptability of the PKO Act to the field reality. The debate on acts on special measures to address the post-9/11 war on terror and on assistance for the reconstruction of Iraq called for the necessity of legislation to deal with situations that do not fall within the parameters of the PKO Act. This move led to the later "legislation for peace and security." The former Act on Special Measures against Terrorism (1) enabled the SDF to provide logistics support for multinational forces, and (2) removed geographic restrictions on the area of SDF activity that was originally confined to the "areas surrounding Japan" as stipulated in the existing law12 and widened the range of SDF activities, and (3) extended the conditions for use of weapons, which was limited to the purpose of self-preservation under the PKO Act, to include the protection of "individuals who have come under their (SDF) control." Thus, further discussion was directed to legislation capable of addressing the needs of overseas missions.

Through the SDF dispatches abroad, cooperation between the Ministry of Defense (the former Defense Agency) and other government ministries and related agencies --- the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, the Japan Coast Guard, and JICA --- was promoted and the strategic versatility of the SDF was strengthened. On the occasion of the SDF dispatch to Iraq, Japan's ODA assistance was implemented in tandem with GSDF activities, and the collaboration became a model for so-called "All Japan" assistance pursued in the later deployment to UN peacekeeping operations. In counter-piracy operations, Japan Coast Guard personnel in the capacity of judicial officers boarded MSDF ships and worked with SDF personnel. Thus the two organizations that did not have common operational ground at home came to work together to deal with the situation.

SDF dispatches other than those for UN peacekeeping operations required integrated operations by the three SDF branches, and as a result the improvement of long-term overseas deployment capabilities have improved in terms of replenishment support, equipment, tactical formation, the rotation procedure, and the welfare of personnel.

As for the SDF dispatch to Iraq, in addition to replenishment support activities in the Indian Ocean, the first-ever overseas exchange of military supplies with the US military started in accordance with the "US-Japan Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA)".13 With this, SDF was provided with more opportunities for cooperation with foreign militaries in the area of logistics. These activities are different in nature from UN peacekeeping operations and the missions in the Middle East helped to improve the SDF's practical capability to operate overseas.

[Defense Exchanges and Cooperation with Other Countries]

Currently, the Ministry of Defense and the SDF are conducting joint exercises with countries other than the United States and have reached agreement on high-level cooperation frameworks as represented by ACSA with the United Kingdom, France, and Australia. It must be remembered that what created such opportunities for cooperation with these countries was the SDF's replenishment activities in the Indian Ocean and reconstruction assistance in Iraq. By working on-site with the troops of these countries, the SDF learned about the differences in procedures for the fulfillment of joint tasks as well as their uses of military equipment, and built a firm relationship with them while confirming inter-operability. This prompted a major change in the way of thinking of SDF personnel who had had few opportunities to interact with foreign troops other than US forces. These experiences provided the basis for the SDF's international defense cooperation in recent years.

To continue its overseas activities, the SDF needs to maintain good relationships with the countries that provide port/airport facilities for supply and replenishment. Traditionally, Japan's diplomatic policy toward the Middle Eastern countries was based principally on economic relations. But the second Abe administration, inaugurated at the end of 2012, successively encouraged high-level visits and exchanges with Gulf countries in particular. As a result, the areas of mutual interest have expanded to include the political and security realms. Irrespective of the administration's interest in economic cooperation with the Middle East,14 changes in the MENAP since 2009 when the MSDF initiated its counter-piracy operations --- the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, the IS terrorist attacks, and China's full-scale advancement to the Indian Ocean --- claimed policy-makers' attention to and engagement in the region to which Japan always looked to for the stable supply of petroleum.15

In those days, Japan successively signed MOUs on defense exchanges with the Gulf and other Middle Eastern countries and built substantial security relationships with them (Table 2). However, few unit-based exchanges were made with these countries with which Japan signed MOUs. The Japanese government appears to have aimed chiefly at the collection of information through high-level exchanges and inter-ministerial consultations; the occasion to express the position and policies of the Japanese government, and securing the provision of convenience for the arriving SDF vessels/aircrafts. .

Table 2. Agreements, Memoranda of Understanding, Unit-Based Exchanges (2012-19)

On top of collaboration with the military forces of developed countries and the strengthening of relationships with neighboring countries, its deployment in the Middle East provided the MSDF with opportunities to conduct bilateral and multilateral joint training and exercise during mission intervals. On way home, the MSDF vessels made goodwill port calls in the coastal countries of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and encouraged exchanges with local stakeholders, thereby enhancing the enduring Japanese presence along the sea lanes connecting the Middle East and Japan. Since the launch of the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (Concept)," MSDF vessels have, with China's advance in mind, been performing strategic port calls and conveying the message that the uses of ports in coastal countries should be open to every country.

[The SDF's Gathering and Dispatch of Information]

The SDF dispatches to the Middle East improved Japan's intelligence capability abroad and effected the increase in the number of Japanese defense attachés. In the Middle East, where political conditions are unstable, not only conflicts but also terrorism and social disturbances could occur at any time. Preparedness is always required to monitor and analyze the regional situation, local security authorities, and their capacities.

At present, Japanese defense attachés are accredited to as many as 21 Middle Eastern countries. Since some attachés are accredited to more than one country, the number of countries where Japanese defense attachés are stationed is 14. Fig. 1 shows that Japanese defense attachés are stationed in almost all the countries in the region except those under unstable political situations such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Japanese defense attachés in the region has increased in number, because the SDF dispatches to the Middle East necessitated their service in specific countries, as was the case with Djibouti where the installation of the SDF base was followed by the establishment of a Japanese embassy and later a defense attaché was assigned to the embassy. The assignment of defense attachés to Japanese diplomatic missions abroad under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is regulated by the MOU between the MOFA and the Ministry of Defense. As SDF dispatches abroad increased in number, the former MOU was amended in 2003 to facilitate swift and reliable information sharing between the two ministries.16

Fig. 1. Japanese Defense Attachés Stationed in the MENAP

At the time of an SDF dispatch abroad, liaison officers and civilian personnel of the Ministry of Defense are also dispatched for information gathering and preparedness to receive SDF troops in the area of destination. Besides the above assignment of defense attachés, the SDF is currently stationing no more than 20 personnel at the US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain for coordination of CTF151 activities, and a liaison officer at the US Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Several SDF personnel are also deployed in the US Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany. Although they are not so prominent as defense attachés, they undoubtedly are forming a valuable information network.

Continuing operations in the Middle East produced additional results --- the accumulation of knowledge and networks such as regular updates on the regional situation and the status of facilities (ports and airports), and various procedures related to MSDF's port calls and supply. These additional results have enabled efficient troop operations in the region. Furthermore, constant information sharing with other countries and the promotion of their understanding of missions/capabilities and restrictions assigned to SDF troops would help obtain support from other countries in the event of an unpredictable incident like a terrorist attack or the rescue of Japanese nationals.

The dispatching of MSDF troops toward international efforts such as counter-piracy operations enables access to information provided by foreign countries based on the so-called need-to-know principle. It also provides an opportunity for MSDF troops to regularly obtain information about sea areas outside their responsibility and the activities of other countries, and to dispatch information they have gathered. From this perspective, the installation of a semi-permanent base in Djibouti and the continuing deployment of two P-3C patrol aircraft over the high seas of the Gulf of Aden are extremely important to Japan's efforts in gathering information.17 MSDF vessels and aircrafts inform foreign navies of, for example, suspicious ships or provide them with information related to counter-piracy operations. Meanwhile, information on issues other than piracy that deployed unit can gather --- the movement of the China's newly built Djibouti base, the passage of foreign naval vessels, information obtained from the interception of communications and signals emitted from surrounding areas --- is considered to have particular values.

Noticeable progress was also made in the SDF's communications capability. In the participation in CTF151, the SDF provided a commander for multinational forces for the first time in its history. This post is a symbolic one with no substantial command authority, for each of the participating navies occupied it in turn once every few months. Nonetheless, the commander, representing the participating naval forces, plays the role of coordinating and managing multinational counter-piracy efforts. When the turn came for the SDF to take up the command post, a team of experts from the UK Department of Defense provided strategic communication (SC) training to MSDF personnel before their deployment. These must have greatly raised the awareness of the MSDF on the use of communication to influence, in synchronization with its activities, and improved its ability in crafting focused narratives to targeted audience to obtain desired responses.

Summary: Significance of Defense Involvement in the Middle East

The SDF dispatches to the Middle East have played an important role in Japan's more proactive defense engagement. Much credit is due to the enactment of the PKO Act and special measures laws which laid the ground to expand overseas mission mandates and authorized capabilities such as rules of engagement. The experiences gained from the past SDF deployment in the Middle East helped to improve defense policies and SDF operations on various occasions. The SDF has now become able to widely contribute to peace operations abroad, except for combat activities. Also, the experiences in collaborating with foreign troops other than the US military have enabled the SDF to advance its defense cooperation and exchanges and to realize more strategic and substantive alignment.

The maintenance of the base in the geographically distant Middle East and year-round MSDF deployment along sea lanes make it possible for the SDF to: conduct independent information gathering; demonstrate Japan's presence to China and neighboring countries, and undertake the dissemination of strategic information on the importance of the rule of law and the free and open maritime order. Since 2017 the MSDF has been conducting long-term operations in the Indo-Pacific (the Indo-Pacific Deployment), which feature an effective combination of the past experiences of activities such as goodwill port calls, capacity-building assistance, and information dispatch.

Now that the SDF troop contribution to UN peacekeeping operations has terminated with withdrawal from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the SDF dispatches to the Middle East for counter-piracy operations are all the more significant as Japan's contribution to global issues. At this point, it is unpredictable what changes the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) will bring to the situation in the Middle East; same as the US and other like-minded countries, Japan is expected to face great financial difficulties. Nonetheless, the expectation will remain high for Japan to continue its engagement in the Middle East to sustain security environment.

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