Japan is rethinking how to use its tanks to prepare for a potential clash with China

Japan Self-Defense Force tanks
Japanese tanks during a live-fire exercise at the foot of Mount Fuji, August 22, 2019.

  • Japan built a large and capable armored force to counter the Soviets during the Cold War.
  • But a rising China poses a new challenge, and Japan is changing how it designs and uses its armor.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Despite a few successes early in World War II, Japanese armor was hopelessly outclassed by Allied tanks as soon as they arrived in large numbers.

Those experiences and the threat of a Soviet invasion led the Japanese to put much more effort into post-war tank designs. By the 1990s, Japan had a large and capable armored force.

But the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) has had to recalibrate in recent decades.

The threat from a rising China has forced Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) to shift from an armor- and artillery-intensive force based in its north – where it would’ve responded to a Soviet invasion – to a more mobile one able to reach southwestern Japan at a moment’s notice.

To do this, the JSDF is making a number of changes, including investing heavily in transportation capability, new armored vehicle designs, and reforming the GSDF’s tank arm.

Fending off the Soviets

Japan Japanese Type 61 tank
Type 61 main battle tanks during an exercise at Camp Fuji in Japan, November 18, 1985.

Japan’s tank force was actually quite modern and innovative during its development between the world wars. But while Germany and the Allies had the industrial capacity to update or create new tanks during World War II, Japan’s industry was comparatively limited.

Moreover, since Japanese plans in that war involved pushing south into areas where massive tank battles were unlikely, most funding and resources went to its navy and air services.

After the war, Japan – now with access to Western technology and designs and convinced of the importance of tanks – focused much more on developing a capable armored force to fend off the Soviets.

For most of the Cold War, Japan’s tank force was made up of the Type 61 and Type 74 main battle tanks, armed with 90 mm and 105 mm guns, respectively. They were both capable designs for their time and were fielded in large numbers.

In 1990, the GSDF introduced the Type 90. At 50 tons and with a 120 mm gun, it is by all accounts a first-rate tank. Equipped with modular composite armor, a laser rangefinder, fire-control computer, thermal and night vision, and an autoloader, it is similar to Germany’s Leopard 2A4.

The Japanese believed Hokkaido, the northernmost of the home islands and the closest to Soviet territory, would be the frontline of any invasion, and most of Japan’s tanks were stationed there.

By 1976, the GSDF had some 1,200 tanks and about 1,000 artillery pieces, mostly in Hokkaido, where much of that armored force is still stationed.

Lighter and more mobile

Japan Self-Defense Force Type 74 tank
Type 74 main battle tanks during a live-fire exercise at the foot of Mount Fuji, August 24, 2017.

The threat of Russian invasion was virtually nonexistent after the Cold War, and the JSDF decided to cut down on the overall number of tanks, which fell from about 900 in service in 1995 to about 570 now.

The JSDF plans to reduce the total to 300 in the coming years.

The GSDF continued acquiring Type 90s to replace the older Type 61 and Type 74s, and Japan has continued developing new armored vehicles, fielding the Type 10 main battle tank and the Type 16 Mobile Combat Vehicle in the last decade.

Introduced in 2012, the Type 10 is meant to replace the Type 74 and compliment the Type 90.

At 48 tons fully loaded, the Type 10 is lighter and more maneuverable than the Type 90. Whereas the Type 90’s size limits it to operating in Hokkaido and around Mt. Fuji, the Type 10 can operate anywhere Japanese law allows.

Japan Self-Defense Force tank armored vehicle
A Japanese Type 10 tank, top left, a Type 90 tank, top right, and Type 16 Maneuver Combat Vehicle, bottom, during an exercise, January 12, 2020.

The Type 10 has modular ceramic composite armor with nano-crystal steel. The modules can be added or removed depending on mission or damage. It also has a 120 mm gun and an auto loader.

The electronics suite is perhaps the Type 10’s most impressive feature, with an advanced command-and-control system that allows it to communicate and share information with nearby JGSDF tanks and units.

The Type 16 was introduced a few years after the Type 10. Although it is wheeled, it has a tank turret and functions as a light tank, conducting close combat, counterattacks, and direct-fire infantry support.

Armed with a 105 mm rifled gun and weighing just 26 tons, the Type 16 can operate safely on Japan’s entire road network and be carried in Air Self Defense Force aircraft.

A new southern threat

Japan Self-Defense Force Type 16 Maneuver Combat Vehicle
A Type 16 during a live-fire exercise in Japan, May 23, 2020.

Adopting lighter tanks may seem counterintuitive, but it actually fits perfectly within the force the JSDF is building – one capable of dealing with the new threat posed to Japan’s southwest by China.

“As we got farther from the Cold War and different threats arose, Japan started to shift overall defense thinking about where the real threat is emanating from,” said Jeffrey Hornung, an expert on Japanese security and foreign policies at the RAND Corporation.

“It starts to crystallize, really in the last decade, decade and a half, [to] where it’s the China threat,” Hornung told Insider.

That threat is primarily in the air and at sea, and centers on the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers but China claims, calling them the Diaoyu Islands.

Japanese leaders believe that since China is not trying to export global revolution like the Soviet Union and is focused on just the Senkakus, a large-scale ground invasion of its home islands is unlikely.

“They don’t anticipate China doing any sort of amphibious invasion of Japanese territory, and so in that environment they don’t see a need for the heavy artillery and tanks.” Hornung said.

“Instead, they see that you have all these islands in the southwest island chain that if the GSDF are going to be involved in, they have to rapidly get there, and they have to have the capability to fight in that environment,” Hornung added.

A need for rapid deployment

GettyImages 2447119
Japanese troops exit an armored vehicle during an exercise, August 30, 2003.

Tanks would still be essential if China were to attack Japan’s larger offshore islands, where thousands of people live. As a result, the GSDF is developing rapid-deployment divisions and brigades, including a new unit trained specifically in amphibious warfare.

It is also acquiring more transportable armored vehicles and artillery systems, emphasizing anti-ship and anti-air capability, and buying V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to help transport its soldiers.

But the GSDF still faces problems – namely its lack of sealift capacity.

Despite the main threat seen as facing Japan’s southwest islands, half of the GSDFs rapidly deployable basic operational units are still based in Hokkaido.

While the Type 16 can be deployed by air, the Type 90 and Type 10 would have to be transported by sea. The majority of its soldiers and hardware would also likely need to be deployed by ship, especially if they are headed to Japan’s outer islands.

The only vessels capable of such tasks that Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force has are its three Ōsumi-class tank landing ships. Japan plans to acquire three new transport vessels by 2024, but these are considerably smaller, and the total number of capable vessels would remain dangerously low.

“They developed these [rapid deployment] capabilities without more coordination on the airlift and sealift from the other services that’s required, and that’s where there’s a problem,” Hornung said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

4 of the US military’s biggest tank battles were during the same war

Army Abrams tanks Iraq Desert Storm
M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks during Operation Desert Storm, February 15, 1991.

  • Every branch of the US military was involved in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
  • Between the Army and the Marine Corps, that war had some of the largest tank battles the US has ever fought.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the US military was at its finest, liberating Kuwaiti civilians from the forces of an evil dictator.

In every way, every branch of the military and every American ally was on display, showing they could handle anything the enemy might throw at them and coming out on top.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the ranks of US military armor.

Between the Army and the Marine Corps, the battles fought during Operation Desert Storm were some of the largest tank battles the United States ever fought – and among the largest in world history.

1. The Battle of Kuwait International Airport

iraqi tank desert storm gulf war
A Iraqi tank destroyed during the Gulf War.

The biggest tank battle in United States Marine Corps history is also the fastest. It’s also one of the most forgotten battles in history, despite the massive size of the forces involved.

On February 25, 1991, the 1st Marine Division and 2nd Marine Division, along with the Army’s 2nd Armored Division’s Tiger Brigade, Army Special Forces, and – later – the 4th Marine Division’s 4th Tank Battalion met 14 Iraqi divisions and a field artillery brigade.

The 1st Marines had broken through the Iraqi lines and into Kuwait City, on its way to the airport drove through them and ahead, fighting skirmishes along the way and destroying at least 100 enemy tanks. The 2nd Marine Division would approach from the other side.

One tank unit, Bravo Company, 4th Tank Battalion woke in the morning to find 35 Iraqi Republican Guard tanks moving to hit them from the front. Outnumbered 3-to-1, the Marines of Bravo Company snapped to, destroying all of them in about 90 seconds. This battle came to be known as the “Reveille Engagement.”

2. The Battle of 73 Easting

m1 abrams tank desert storm gulf war iraq
An Abrams tank in the desert during Desert Storm.

A young Army officer named H.R. McMaster (yes, that H.R. McMaster) was leading a group of nine M1A1 Abrams tanks through the desert at the start of the Desert Storm ground war.

Soon, his tanks came over a hill – and right into the path of an entire Iraqi tank division.

When outnumbered by hundreds, many officers would withdraw or surrender. McMaster plowed through. His troop destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and 30 trucks in 23 minutes.

They called in other tank troops as they fought and were soon joined by more Americans, more than 840 armored vehicles in all. With the Iraqis knocked out, the Americans were free to engage behind the lines and onward into Kuwait.

3. Battle of Norfolk

T72 battle tank russia destroyed
An Iraqi T-72 main battle tank destroyed in a Coalition attack during Operation Desert Storm.

What happens when American and British Armor meet the Iraqi Republican Guard inside Iraq? Some 1,100 Iraqi tanks destroyed, along with hundreds of artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers and thousands of Iraqi prisoners.

With 12 divisions on the battlefield, this was the second largest tank battle in US history and the largest of the Gulf War.

Two hours after the Battle of 73 Easting, coalition forces advanced to Objective Norfolk, an intersection on Iraqi supply lines and an important hub for moving material. Defending Norfolk was the Tawakalna Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard, which had just been bloodied at 73 Easting.

By the time the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division controlled Norfolk, the Tawakalna Division ceased to exist.

4. Battle of Medina Ridge

us army gulf war tank
A US soldier on top of a tank destroyed during the Gulf War.

For two hours, the US Army’s 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Brigade of the Iraqi Republican Guard Medina Luminous Division slugged it out at one of the Iraqi desert’s few landmarks. Around 348 M1A1 Abrams tanks met hundreds of enemy tanks in one of the toughest battles of the war.

The Iraqis, positioned behind the ridgeline, could only be seen directly when US tanks crested the hill. Which would have been an effective defense if it weren’t for the Army’s Apache helicopters and the Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs constantly strafing them.

The Iraqis arguably put up the stiffest defense of the war at Medina Ridge, but the loss was still lopsided – four US tanks were destroyed while the Iraqis lost 186.

Read the original article on Business Insider