December 1, 2005  

What the Japanese military needs

As Japan’s Self-Defense Forces prepare to respond to the challenges of operating in a combined way with U.S. forces, the question of whether Japan’s own military services can operate in a joint way might seem to come first. I’ve had a lot of experience in this realm: I was with the Joint Staff Committee in 1997; I was the Joint Staff Committee’s “Fifth Joint Staff Room Head,” the so-called J5, for a year; and at that time, I was involved in the revision of the Japan-U.S. Defense Guidelines.

But this is a false choice. Japan’s military must learn simultaneously how to conduct joint and combined operations. We do not have the luxury of time.

To begin with, there already is a system of strategic cooperation between Japan and the United States. But the United States has already started to “transform” its military for the 21st century. The reposturing of U.S. forward-deployed military forces, which will be a major pillar of this transformation, is underway. I think this change will materialize into a new military strategy for U.S. forces in Asia. As this involves difficult problems for Japan and the United States, restructuring will not be easy. But I expect that an agreement can be reached through the forum of the so-called “Two-plus-Two” talks.


In my view, there are four basic points in transforming the Japan-U.S. alliance.

1 Close strategic consultations with the United States are necessary in respect to both policy-making and defense, or implementation of “alliance management.” The United States wishes to retain military bases in Japan as their core military bases in Asia, and operate them as such. How Japan responds to that will be our challenge.

2 We must is strengthen combined operational capabilities from both global and regional aspects. These need not be pointed out in detail, but it also is a challenge for us.

3 There must be a review of “role-sharing” in operating the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the U.S. forces in the defense of Japan. As mentioned here, this is the so-called “reviewing roles and mission sharing.” As outlined by Shigeru Ishiba during his tenure as director-general of the Japan Defense Agency, the procurement agency for the Japanese military, future missions of the SDF will include ballistic missile defense, coping with invasions on remote islands, and so on. In the event of such occurrences, it probably will be necessary for U.S. forces and the SDF to share their roles, each acting as part “shield” and part “spear” and cooperating with each other. There is a need for close cooperation working on such issues, and this still is a larger challenge for us Japanese. Our old view of role-sharing is outdated.

4 We must improve interoperability in combined operation of both forces centering on the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. So in addition to the political, strategic and operational challenges we face, we face a similarly large technological challenge.


Even as Japan wrestles with the idea of combined activities between the SDF and U.S. forces, we must address the question of our own issues in regard to joint-service operations. What can the SDF learn from the experiences of U.S. forces in strengthening joint interoperability of the SDF?

First, there is a question of whether U.S. forces even provide a good model for the SDF. It might be slightly provocative, but here are two views of this.

One is that the integration of both the forces is progressing swiftly; Americans think that it is proceeding with great speed, along with the progress of their own revolution in military affairs. On the other hand, how much progress is there on the Japanese side? Truthfully, the SDF has just started this process.

It also is important that Americans understand the phenomenon of “Japanese uniqueness.” Japan can only proceed down the path of strengthening integration and ultimately creating genuine combined and joint activities with U.S. forces by overcoming this Japanese uniqueness.

What is Japanese uniqueness? Consider the Japanese approach to the creation of a staff system, both as a matter for the alliance and in the context of building “jointness” among the SDF. There has been a Japanese joint “operational bureau” within the defense bureaucracy, and, under current plans, these both will continue to exist nearly intact.

So at the highest level, the SDF has started a move toward integration. But the question is what will happen next. The SDF and Japan will need to find out who is the right counterpart on the U.S. side; this has already been an issue, but is becoming more urgent as we intensify integration and accelerate future joint activities.

There are basic differences in the ways in which U.S. forces and the SDF conduct joint operations, but the flow of the command-and-control structure is similar. In the case of the United States, it consists of the president, defense secretary and the theater commanding officers. In the case of Japan, it is composed of the prime minister, director general of the defense agency and the commanding officer of the integrated forces.

These flows look similar. However, the basic difference is that the forces are permanent in the United States. The United States has two kinds of standing forces: one is a regional force and the other is a functional force. In Japan’s case, command arrangements are temporary and come together when needed. We must understand these are the big differences.

It’s not clear that Japanese uniqueness in command relationships can meet the future challenges of either truly joint Japanese or combined operations with American forces or in a larger coalition. Certainly officers within the Defense Agency, internal bureaus, the SDF, particularly Joint Staff Committee headquarters are making their best efforts, but they have a lot to tackle.

First, there is a question of whether a temporary joint task force can properly be organized when a situation does not develop as expected; war is full of surprises. This is a problem of whether one can organize a temporary joint task force, for example, in order to cope with an unexpected emergency situation. In the worst case, it may be too late.

Conducting simultaneous operations would be even harder. What will happen if a scheduled task force and a temporary task force are concurrently required? For example, if an event that requires ballistic missile defense emerged, it could be handled well. But what if such an event occurs in another situation? What if two such events occur at the same time? War is not only full of surprises, but crises beget crises.


Even at the institutional levels, there are fundamental differences between the SDF and U.S. forces. As an example, consider our preparedness, or readiness reporting system. This is called “operational readiness status” and the United States has a unified readiness assessment across its major units and commands. In Japan, we have not come to that stage yet. We need to figure out how to track information, especially in the area of logistics.

Then there’s the matter of people, specifically their education and training. In these aspects, the United States attaches importance to jointness, even as a legal matter. Stemming from the Goldwater-Nichols Act, U.S. personnel cannot be promoted unless they are well educated in these aspects. Japan has not developed to that level. Furthermore, in terms of equipment and technology, integration in Japan has not reached that stage.

In sum, the challenges for the SDF are many. The SDF must establish integrated forces in the true sense of the term in the future and they have to organize genuine joint forces with concerted efforts of the SDF under the strong leadership of the Joint Staff Office, to be newly organized in March next year. At first, they will continue to respect Japanese uniqueness. Then, in the course of transformation, the respective branches of the SDF will experience a variety of pains, such as a loss of vested interest and a change in traditional patterns of operations. But we must overcome such pains. Integration cannot wait. The Joint Staff Office and the Joint Staff Committee have pressing problems; for example, full-fledged invasions, ballistic missile defense and invasions on remote islands.

It will not be easy for Japan to transform the SDF. There is, of course, the question of the Japanes constitution and its restrictions on military operations. But practically speaking, the biggest difference is that U.S. forces are, and have long been, expeditionary forces operating far from home.

What about the SDF? They have a defensive-only policy and posture. In other words, they are designed for so-called exclusive defense. Based on this concept, forces have been organized and tradition firmly established. Herein is a great gap.

Finally, should the SDF be integrated first or should combined activities with U.S. forces come first? My answer is that we should do both, and that we can better learn to integrate the arms of the SDF through operating in combination with the United States.