Photo/Illutration A YouTube broadcast of the Fuji Firepower Exercise shows a closeup of Ground Self-Defense members handling ammunition. (A screenshot from the Ground Self-Defense Force public relations channel)

The COVID-19 crisis has forced Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to drastically change the format of drills and exercises, raising concerns about preparations for the security of the nation.

For example, a scaled-down Fuji Firepower Exercise, the largest live-fire drill by the Ground SDF, was held on May 23 at the East Fuji Maneuver Area in Shizuoka Prefecture.

In normal years, GSDF units are summoned from around Japan for the drill. But only units from nearby sites took part in the event in May to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The usual public viewing of the drill was also called off this year.

The event essentially became a “tele-exercise,” as one senior SDF officer put it.

The drill was based on a scenario of enemy forces attempting to land on a remote island.

One of the central players for such a situation, the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, could not attend the war game because it is based in far-flung Nagasaki Prefecture.

Instead, the brigade, the SDF’s first amphibious unit set up in 2018, took part “on video.” A screen showed moving images of the brigade.

The annual Fuji Firepower Exercise sessions give young SDF members from around Japan an opportunity to get together and learn on site, for example, about the power of live fire.

This year, many of them learned by watching live broadcasts on YouTube.

The scenes showed how shells were shot and how they exploded. Drones were used in the filming so the viewers could feel that they were close to the actual setting.

Gen. Goro Yuasa, the GSDF chief of staff, acknowledged the negative sides of the tele-exercise.

“It diminishes the effectiveness in helping to acquire a direct sense (of a combat situation),” Yuasa said.

But he added that measures will continue to minimize the impact of COVID-19.

“The drills will have to be partially adapted to the need of ‘living with coronavirus,’” another senior SDF official said.

The maritime and air branches of the SDF are expected to face more relaxed restrictions than the GSDF, whose drills involve large movements of troops on the ground and close human interactions.

“Vessels can meet each other at sea and part with each other at sea,” Adm. Hiroshi Yamamura, chief of staff of the Maritime SDF, said, referring to joint exercises with foreign naval forces.

The Air SDF can also avoid human contact in its exercises.

But the pandemic has still had a serious effect on the ASDF and MSDF.

The ASDF’s plan to hold its first joint exercise with fighter jets of the Indian Air Force has been postponed indefinitely.

The MSDF is now finding it difficult to conduct navigation exercises involving port calls to other countries partly because of the health situations in the host nations.

Further, it appears inevitable the coronavirus crisis will take a toll on “defense exchanges” between members of foreign militaries and the SDF.

In addition, the SDF imposed rigorous restrictions on “nonessential” outings of its members from their bases and camps in areas where the state of emergency was in effect. One infected member could rapidly spread the disease in “group life,” an essential characteristic of the SDF.

A senior Defense Ministry official explained the dilemma facing the SDF in the health crisis.

“Skills will drop if no drills are held, which is not good, but if infections were to occur where restrictions have been eased, that would call for another rethink,” the official said.