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Japan aims to recruit 500 new crew for future Aegis ships

With fewer young people joining, transfer from other services seen as an option

Japan's Aegis-equipped ship Maya off Yokohama.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- The Japanese government plans to recruit some 500 Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel to crew two future Aegis ships but faces a shortage of young people willing to join up, and so will consider breaking the barriers between the three services to move personnel from the ground and air forces.

In June, Japan decided to cancel the procurement of two Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems from the U.S. due to concerns about safety and cost, and instead decided to build two Aegis ships over the next five years. Each will require about 300 crew members, so the Maritime SDF needs to recruit and train 400 to 600 members for the two vessels.

The Maritime SDF had 42,850 service members in fiscal 2019 following four years of increases to reinforce Japan's defense capabilities against North Korean missiles and other threats.

Each service calculates a quota of personnel needed for emergency situations. The MSDF's total of active personnelis expected to come to 96% of its quota in fiscal 2021, up from around 92% in fiscal 2010 to 2013.

The Maritime SDF has the highest ratio of active personnel to quota, highlighting a lopsided increase in its assignments. In 2016 through 2019, the ratio hovered between 90% and 92% in the Ground SDF and stayed at the 91% level in the Air SDF.

But the recruitment of new service members is facing difficulties. In fiscal 2019, for example, only 86,000 people applied for the forces, down a sharp 30% from fiscal 2011.

The Defense Ministry has managed to secure service personnel through efforts such as, in fiscal 2018, raising the age limit for new recruits to 32 from 26 and extending the term of work.

The 500-person target is considered difficult to meet with new recruits alone. The ministry thus will carry out, among other measures, the transfer of members from the Ground SDF to the Maritime SDF for now rather than changing the SDF law to increase the quota for maritime personnel.

Specifically, Ground SDF members will possibly be assigned to a Maritime SDF land base so members of the maritime force who currently work at land bases can crew the new Aegis ships.

Although there already is a tenkan personnel transfer program among the three forces, it has rarely been implemented because of the big differences in work and training involved, according to people familiar with the matter. The planned steep increase in recruitment may change the situation.

Japan decided in December 2017 to introduce two Aegis Ashore systems to strengthen its missile defense capability. It planned to build Aegis Ashore sites in Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures to monitor moves to launch missiles abroad.

Subsequently, it was found that an additional 200 billion yen ($1.89 billion) or so would be necessary to prevent rocket boosters from hitting populated areas after separating from interceptor missiles. In June, therefore, then-Defense Minister Taro Kono canceled the procurement plan.

Japan plans to deploy Lockheed Martin's cutting-edge SPY-7 radar on the two Aegis ships that it will build as an alternative to the pair of Aegis Ashore systems.

The Ground SDF was scheduled to dispatch personnel to the Aegis Ashore sites for guarding and other tasks. The decision to build two Aegis ships will make the Maritime SDF the principal operator of the new missile defense program and add to its personnel crunch.

The Maritime SDF will seek to enhance the efficiency of personnel deployment in addition to the planned increase in recruitment.

It will introduce 10 escort ships, each operable by 100 crew members -- half the conventional number-- by fiscal 2023 to make surplus personnel available for the two new Aegis vessels. It will also make more effective use of patrol boats, each carrying some 30 warning and surveillance specialists, to allocate service members to missile defense. 

The seriousness of the personnel crunch differs among the services. The burdens on the maritime and air forces have increased because of North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs and China's naval expansion. In the Ground SDF, tank regiments and others are striving to rapidly improve the efficiency of operations, including personnel deployment.

The Defense Ministry has been reinforcing the recruitment of service members. In addition to raising the age limit for recruits, it will decrease the recruitment of personnel for two- to three-year terms and increase that of long-term personnel allowed to remain in the SDF until reaching retirement age in their 50s.

The number of applicants is declining nevertheless, making it difficult to recruit people with an aptitude for the armed services.

The Maritime SDF's work environments in particular, such as sea tours that may last months, can discourage young people form joining. Many young people furthermore consider it intolerable to be banned from using mobile phones.

The Maritime SDF thus will better explain to studentsthe importance of its tasks at sea and improve its work environments. It will also step up recruitment efforts via social media and other channels.

But a ministry official in charge of recruitment said, "We are in a Catch-22 situation because we cannot readily lower the bar for acceptance just for the sake of increasing recruits."

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