Japan announced May 28 the deployment of two P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft to Djibouti in support of anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. The deployment has both tactical significance for the operation and larger symbolic and geopolitical significance for the expansion of Japanese military power.
The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) deployed two P-3C Orion maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft to the east African country of Djibouti, media quoted defense ministry officials as saying May 28. The P-3s will be based at Djibouti's international airport, and are to be accompanied by about 150 crew members, engineers and security personnel. The aircraft follow an earlier deployment of two JMSDF guided missile destroyers, the Sazanami (DD-113) and Samidare (DD-106), which in March joined the myriad international vessels operating under various aegises in the Gulf of Aden to combat Somali pirates. Though the Japanese are not the first P-3 aircraft deployed in Djibouti (Germany and Spain each operate their own versions of the P-3 from there), they will make a significant addition to the counter-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa region. While they do not address the fundamental issues of sanctuary and governance in Somalia underlying the current piracy problem, the Japanese deployment will bring valuable additional situational awareness to the table (at least at sea). The P-3 has proven to be a valuable and versatile plane, with regular deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to help monitor activity ashore (to say nothing of the heavily deployed EP-3 Aries II electronic intelligence variant). Though many of the P-3s sensors and weapons will be of little utility in hunting pirates, the planes will make an invaluable addition to the counter-piracy effort. The P-3s search radar, designed to spot very small targets, such as a submarine periscope, will be more useful for tracking and monitoring maritime traffic — including pirates heading out of known pirate ports — than some of the ship-borne radar systems that might not detect pirate speedboats hidden in the troughs of waves as quickly as the aerial surveillance can. The aircraft will also be able to remain on station for hours at a time — even while operating on the far side of the Horn from Djibouti, along Somalia's northeast coast where the pirates largely are based. They will be able to cover much more ground for much longer periods than ship-borne helicopters. Essentially, the JMSDF deployment to Djibouti strengthens counter-piracy situational awareness through reinforcing the ability to swoop down and visually investigate an unknown target, which will be of great help for commanders in better tasking and managing limited naval assets in a maritime region that encompasses more than a million square miles of ocean. With so many ships, groups and national flags constantly in flux, coordination is still a work in progress. Further refining that coordination would undoubtedly help to maximize the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts of the P-3s supporting the operations. But the significance of the JMSDF contingent in Djibouti is more than just the reinforcement of land-based, fixed-wing aircraft already supporting anti-piracy operations off Somalia. Japan's deployment of the P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft is in line with Japan's evolving defense strategy, whereby Tokyo begins to take a more active role in security its supply lines and interests farther and farther from home. Tokyo participated in anti-piracy security initiatives around the Strait of Malacca in recent years, but its participation off the coast of Somalia, including ships and now aircraft, marks another step in the erosion of the self-imposed restraints on Japanese security deployments abroad, and a further widening of Japan's definition of "self-defense." The deployment offers Japan's defense forces the opportunity to train in real-life sustained operations far from home, to learn from the operations of other militaries in the region, and to observe the activities and operations of its potential competitors, including the Chinese navy.