Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities

The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities by Desmond Ball, Richard TanterBall - Tools of Owatatsumi

The field of Strategic Studies has always had something of a split focus. At one level it is concerned with the mechanics of the use of force: what are the exact capabilities and limitations of the tools at your disposal. At another level, strategic studies is concerned with the purpose of force: Why do countries fight, when do they fight, how do they avoid fighting etc.

As a discipline, Strategic Studies owes its creation largely to the former question, given our urgent and life-changing need to understand just what kind of power we had come into control of at the dawn of the nuclear age. Over time however, the discipline has lumbered towards the second form. Not all of us can be rocket scientists, and frankly the most interesting and important questions are often not what a weapon can do, but what you want a weapon for.

There is however a hierarchy of knowledge here, and while the political questions are largely seen as more interesting and important, the technical and mechanical analyses are the necessary origins of our political judgements. It is firmly in the technical camp that you’ll find ‘The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities’ by Desmond Ball and Richard Tanter.

This is an extremely important book, but it is also staggeringly dry as the authors list page after page of highly technical details about what capabilities Japan has developed, with virtually no discussion of what this means for Japan or the region’s security. This however is the Des Ball way, and few in the world could do the research that underpins this book. Several times in his career Professor Ball has chanced his arm on larger arguments about big political and strategic trends (especially arms races), but generally he prefers to do the extremely detailed technical analysis and provide it to the public, with the expectation they will read, think and hold their elected leaders to account for it.

There are many important take aways from this book. While China’s economic growth has led many to claim they will rule the world or develop a sphere of influence in North Asia, the authors demonstrate comprehensively that Japan has a virtually unmatched surveillance system that would give them a substantial advantage in any military conflict. Likewise, while countless articles will seek to examine whether the US would ‘choose’ to support Japan in a conflict with China, Ball and Tanter prove that so thoroughly integrated are US and Japanese intelligence systems that a decision by the US to stay out would cost it not only an important ally but the virtual destruction of its own extensive ocean surveillance network. Suddenly, that’s a much higher price and far less about ideas of ‘credibility’ and other optics which political strategic studies analysts like myself tend to talk about.

Still, this is a hard book to read. If you don’t have a good background in hydrophone arrays and Direction Finding High Frequency systems, you’ll be checking Wikipedia every few minutes and often finding your eyes glazing over as you learn that this station has nine radar domes, while that one has 12 which measure 19 meters by 20 meters. And so on. Were the authors anyone else than Ball and Tanter I’d also raise a sceptical eye about the verifiability of their data. These kinds of works can feel like a cross between an electrical equipment owners manual and organisational annual report.

Analysis of particular station may rest on a data point from the 1980s, a quote from the 1990s and two news reports in the 2000s. Now, I trust these authors because I know they have gathered everything that is available and tested it with utmost care, but there must be many in the Japanese and US governments who will read this book and be both horrified at how much has been correctly identified, while also ready to identify a dozen things the authors simply could not have known about.

This book is very much in the original mould of strategic studies. An analysis of just how states prepare for and undertake the use of force. Without a solid knowledge of this material, any discussions about why they might do so, or how to avoid them doing so, won’t have a serious foundation. Few could do the work of Ball and Tanter. I certainly couldn’t, and sadly too few of my generation seem inclined to. But it is absolutely essential that it is done, and to their credit that they have done so.

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