Constitution seen as highest hurdle for SDF Middle East mission

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The government faces a series of challenges for dispatching Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East, especially whether such SDF activities would be consistent with the Constitution in the event of their possible involvement in an armed conflict.

The government started full-fledged work on considering details after deciding at a National Security Council meeting Friday to study a plan to send SDF vessels and patrol planes to the Middle East as part of its efforts to ensure navigational safety in the region.

The government would treat the envisaged SDF dispatch as investigation and research activities under the law for the establishment of the Defense Ministry, involving surveillance activities by the SDF vessels and patrol planes.

The aim of the investigation and research activities would be to collect information and therefore not include operations to protect Japanese ships.

As the activities do not require approval from the Diet, the government can send SDF troops for the mission promptly.

Following the NSC decision, the Defense Ministry set up a task force within the ministry’s Joint Staff Office. The task force has started mapping out the countermeasures, needed equipment and legal consistency for each possible scenario for envisaged SDF activities in the Middle East.

The government was initially cautious about sending SDF troops to the Middle East.

But it ended up considering the dispatch for investigation and research activities as a makeshift solution after U.S. President Donald Trump demanded in June that Japan and other countries protect their own oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, a key crude oil shipping lane in the region.

With the envisaged activities aiming not to provoke Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, the use of weapons by the SDF troops on such a mission would be limited to self-defense and emergency evacuation purposes under Article 95 of the SDF law.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Yemen’s Houthi rebels would be in possible areas for the SDF activities considered by the Japanese government.

If the SDF troops get involved in fights with a country or a quasi-state organization armed heavily with missiles or unmanned aircraft, they would highly likely be caught up in belligerency, a situation banned by the Constitution.

Against this background, the ministry is considering changing the rationale for the SDF troop dispatch to maritime security operations stipulated in the SDF law if the situation in their activity areas escalates, sources familiar with the situation said.

Still, the use of weapons by the SDF troops would be limited to the scope of police authority, as the maritime security operations would be aimed at protecting people’s lives and assets and maintaining security at sea.

As an order for maritime security operations requires Cabinet approval, it is unclear whether the government has time for completing the necessary procedures under a contingency situation, the sources said.

“Concerns over the safety of SDF troops would not be dispelled in the current situation,” an SDF source said.

With Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying that the government has yet to decide when to dispatch the SDF troops to the Middle East, full and careful preparations are expected to be made for every possible scenario, the sources said.

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