Photo/IllutrationThe Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Takanami will be dispatched to the Middle East early next year. (Provided by Maritime Self-Defense Force)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The government on Dec. 27 approved orders to dispatch a Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer to the Middle East on a “research” mission that underscores the delicate situation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in.

The destroyer Takanami could set sail for the Middle East as early as February. The ship has a surveillance helicopter on board that can be used in the mission to gather intelligence concerning conditions facing ships navigating in nearby waters.

A P-3C patrol aircraft now operating off Somalia as part of an anti-piracy mission will be diverted to airspace over waters where the MSDF destroyer will eventually begin its operations.

About 260 SDF members will be involved in the Middle East operations.

Defense Minister Taro Kono issued orders on Dec. 27 to begin preparations for the dispatch.

The United States had asked Japan to join Operation Sentinel, a multinational effort to secure the safety of ships sailing around the Strait of Hormuz, which has seen the most friction between the U.S.-led coalition and Iran.

But because of Japan’s long history of friendly ties with Iran, Tokyo did not want to take any action that could aggravate Tehran.

Japan did not join Operation Sentinel but still decided to send a destroyer to the region.

However, the MSDF will operate in the Gulf of Oman, the northern half of the Arabian Sea as well as the Gulf of Aden to the east of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. These areas are outside of the Strait of Hormuz.

Given the location of the MSDF operations, questions have been raised over whether the dispatch is actually needed.

A tanker registered with a Japanese company did come under attack near the Strait of Hormuz in June. But there have been no reports since then of Japanese ships facing danger in the waters where the MSDF destroyer and aircraft will be dispatched.

The mission was approved for study and research under provisions of the law that established the Defense Ministry. For that reason, the government does not have to seek Diet approval for the dispatch.

But due to concerns about the safety of the SDF members who will be deployed, the Cabinet order will be effective for only one year. If the government seeks an extension, it must approve another order as well as submit a report to the Diet about the details of the first year of operations.

Defense Ministry officials will ask their U.S. counterparts to share intelligence gathered by the U.S.-led coalition based on the long alliance with Japan.

However, that cooperation has led to concerns within the SDF that Iran could consider the MSDF ship as part of the U.S.-led coalition and expose crew members to possible danger.

There are also worries about the short period to train for the dispatch, with departure scheduled for early February.