Japan Doesn’t Need a Hostage Rescue Force
It couldn’t have rescued Islamic State hostages
The executions of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa by Islamic State militants has left Japan looking for solutions to an impossible problem.
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to link the crisis to his broader project of constitutional reform, he has also posited the creation of an hostage rescue force and the legal framework to support its deployment abroad.
The idea is flawed—Tokyo has no use for a military hostage rescue capability. What’s more, Japan couldn’t have saved Goto and Yukawa from Islamic State even if Abe had already had his military reforms in place.
In a Foreign Policy article this month, a former U.S. Joint Special Operations Command officer placed the likelihood of a successful extraction of American hostage Kayla Mueller at “less than 50 percent.”
A Japanese mission would have had much lower odds of success—the U.S. has the best intelligence and special operations assets in the world. Tokyo has excellent special forces, but its foreign intelligence collection is inadequate to support a rescue operation.
Accurate and timely intelligence is critical to rescue ops. You can’t raid an enemy that you can’t pin down. The U.S. government deployed a task force into Ar Raqqa, Syria, to attempt rescuing journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in the summer of 2014. They came back empty-handed—the militants had moved the hostages mere days before.
Given the difficulties in negotiating with Islamic State, Japan clearly lacked intelligence on the ground. With no dedicated foreign human intelligence collection capability, Tokyo’s independent secret intel consists of imagery from the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center plus diplomatic and military intelligence collected by Japan’s embassies and attaches.
The recent crisis has spurred an attempt by Japan to close the intelligence gap. The Ministry of Defense has increased the number of uniformed liaisons to the Middle East. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is also considering policies that might create a civilian central intelligence agency along the lines of the American CIA or British Secret Intelligence Service.
Such an agency could take a long time to establish and could face significant public resistance.
If anything, the deaths of Goto and Yukawa underline that non-state actors threaten the safety of Japan’s civilians abroad. Understanding the threat—and how to avoid it—is far more important to Japan’s paternalistic style of public safety governance than any military action would be.
Currently, Japan’s only hope for actionable intelligence in an international crisis is through its alliance with the United States. With more than 12,000 Japanese working in the Middle East and North Africa, Tokyo needs to be able to independently identify and track threats against its citizens. It also needs the human capital to contact and negotiate with groups that have taken Japanese captives.
What it doesn’t need is an independent military capability to extract hostages from militant groups.
Whither hostage rescue?
The main hostage-taking threat to Japanese national interest is in the shipping lanes that keep Japan’s economy running. Tokyo already has a superb maritime boarding capability in the navy’s Special Boarding Unit and the coast guard’s Special Security Teams. These units have participated in Japanese anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden.
In the context of the more recent Islamic State conflict, it’s clear that the Japanese government is talking about adding a counterterrorism and hostage rescue force to the Ground Self-Defense Force, Japan’s army.
The new hostage rescue mission would likely end up in the hands of the Special Forces Group, based at Narashino in Chiba. It currently handles the Ground Self-Defense Force’s general counterterrorism responsibilities. Activated in March 2004, the unit has close ties to American Special Operations Forces—its founding members trained with the U.S. Army’s Delta Force.
Any new hostage-rescue mandate would require the Special Forces Group to stand up a rapid-response unit akin to the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing of the British 22 SAS or Delta Force. The unit would need intensive close-quarter battle training as well as a covert infiltration skills that the Special Forces Group, a defensive force, currently neglects.
However, the government’s plans lack definition. “We are not assuming special operations such as those carried out by the U.S. military,” a defense ministry official told Jiji Press. The government’s policy objectives would still leave Japan too heavily constrained to act swiftly and decisively, like America can.
An armed rescue option was already part of Abe’s plan to empower the military to help Japanese citizens and allies who find themselves under attack abroad. But even under Abe’s scheme, Japan would be restricted to a minimal use of force.
And, in the case of Syria, Abe would have required Tokyo to get permission from Damascus before sending in rescuers. “It would be difficult to obtain the consent of Syria,” Abe admitted to the opposition parties at the Feb. 2 meeting of the House of Councilors Budget Committee.
Even if Tokyo had the legal cover to conduct a rescue mission and Damascus’ assent, Japanese troops still would have faced the high risk inherent in any hostage rescue operation.
How many examples of successful hostage rescue missions on land can you recall from the last decade? Off the top of my head, I came up with just one—the rescue of Helen Johnston by British and American forces in Afghanistan. There are a few others.
And there are many tragedies.
Last December, a SEAL Team Six operation to rescue American journalist Luke Somers in Yemen led to the death of Somers and a South African hostage. In 2010, another SEAL Team Six operation prompted the death of Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove.
Rescue operations—particularly in foreign lands—carry great risks for both the rescuers and the captives. This is even more true when there is little intelligence to go on.
A Japanese international hostage rescue force would require new facilities, support organizations, training and equipment. A rapid reaction force would need to be ready for action at any time and with full logistical support. Covert infiltration techniques would also need to extend into the training and equipment of the Air Self-Defense Force.
Admittedly, this would not require a significant portion of the defense budget, nor much manpower. But it is hard to justify such effort when Tokyo hasn’t yet faced a crisis where an armed hostage rescue mission was both possible and appropriate.
Would Tokyo have stormed the In Amenas oil refinery in Algeria during the 2013 siege that left 10 Japanese dead? Could it have found and rescued tourist Shosei Koda before his beheading in Iraq in 2004?
The answer is no.
For Tokyo, an armed rescue capability undoubtedly seems attractive. But the truth is, a Japanese hostage rescue force would be a waste of time and money.