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Japan's National Defense: What You Need to Know

Retired US Marine Colonel Grant Newsham takes on key questions about Japan's national defense: How far has it come, what needs improving, and why?

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JMSDF personnel salute on the Hakugei submarine on March 20, 2023. (© Sankei by Kotaro Hikono)

Someone asked me a few questions about Japan's national defense the other day. As expected, I gave my take on each one. Meanwhile, others might be just as curious about the current status of Japan's preparedness.

If so, then this is what you need to know:

1. What is motivating Japan and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to bolster Japan's defenses and to play a more active role in the region on security?  

The People's Republic of China. Xi Jinping has succeeded in getting Japan to take its national defense seriously. That's something the Americans never had much success at.

Some Japanese were concerned with PRC military threat in the early 2000s, if not before. And then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts in 2006-2007 to establish the Quad between the major democracies: Japan, Australia, the United States, and India owed to concerns of Chinese expansionism. 

Japan had been quietly building up its defense all the while. By the late 2000s, for example, Japan's "anti-submarine helicopter carriers" — aircraft carriers with a little modification — were already on hand, and the next generation was already under construction. Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) plans to "fortify" the Nansei Shoto were developed around this time too.

US Marines Long-range missiles
The US Army's high-mobility rocket artillery system "HIMARS" (left) which was first deployed to the Nansei Islands, and the Ground Self-Defense Force's "Type 12 surface-to-ship guided missile." August 31, 2022 GSDF Camp Amami (© Sankei by Toyohiro Ichioka)

2. What key developments caught Tokyo's attention?

China's fishing fleet, along with the China Coast Guard and Chinese Navy muscling in on Japan's Senkaku Islands around 2012 is what really got Tokyo's attention. It spurred a faster, if measured, defense buildup.

The buildup was probably too measured. The Chinese have not let up around Japan's southern islands, and the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and the Japan Coast Guard are overstretched down south. That's not surprising given that from 2016-2020 the People's Liberation Army Navy launched about as many ships as were in the entire Japanese naval fleet.

3. Are the announced changes in defense spending real?

In recent years, Japan's moves to strengthen defense have seemed more pronounced. People's attention was caught, especially, by Kishida's announced doubling of defense spending. The Japanese are now moving faster. And Japanese defense guidelines no longer beat around the bush. They now describe China as the problem that needs to be addressed. 

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Japan by and large recognizes that there's no deal to be cut with the PRC. And Japan is being forced to protect itself.

4. Would the North Korean threat have caused Japan to bolster its defenses to this degree? 

I doubt it. That would have been mostly a matter of beefing up missile defenses, and maybe acquiring some long-range missiles — the so-called "counterstrike weapons" to hit targets in North Korea.

Japan's move to strengthen its defense is also partly motivated by fears that the United States may not defend Japan if it doesn't do enough. Indeed, Tokyo has always fretted about "Japan passing." In other words, the Americans losing interest in Japan and even reaching an accommodation with China that leaves Japan on its own.

Senkaku Islands
A Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel navigates alongside a Chinese Coast Guard ship to prevent it from approaching a research vessel. January 30, off the Senkaku Islands in Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture. (© Sankei by Hiroshi Kawase)

5. Was it hard for Japan to shed its post-war pacifism?

Not really. Japanese pacifism has always been a strange thing and in part is just moral preening. The JSDF, for all its shortcomings, has always been a real military. Even more, pacifist Japan has always insisted that the Americans exterminate anyone threatening Japan. That's some pacifism. With China breathing fire, nobody much talks about pacifism these days.

6. Is Japan improving its military too late?

Maybe, maybe not. Tokyo should have started moving faster at least a decade ago. But this is always the case when free nations wake up and realize they are at risk from aggressive, dictatorial regimes. It's always later than it should be.

Japan isn't starting from scratch, however. It has the makings of a force that can deliver some punch. But owing to restraints placed on JSDF development — mostly self-imposed — it's a somewhat misshapen and undersized force. The Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF), for example, ought to be twice its size in order to handle current missions. The Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) is not well integrated with the other services and seems to prefer flying around at 30,000 feet (9 km) looking for a dogfight. It's also smaller than it should be. 

GSDF has made some good progress in the last decade in becoming a more mobile force. This is evidenced by the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade. And it's even able to work with MSDF more than one imagines. But GSDF has to overcome decades of being focused on defending Hokkaido from a Russian invasion — that never came.

Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade getting off from amphibious vehicle AAV7 in the Ground Self-Defense Force "Fuji Firepower Exercise" on May 28, Higashifuji Exercise Area in Gotemba City, Shizuoka Prefecture. (© Sankei by Haruna Naka)

7. What are the next challenges?

JSDF needs to figure out joint (or combined) operations, so the three JSDF services can operate together. Otherwise, it's not even the sum of its parts. There's a move afoot to get this capability in place, but it will be a few years. And even then, mastering joint/combined ops takes time and practice

Recruitment is another problem. JSDF has been missing its targets by 20% for years. This isn't because of the shrinking population. It's more because service in the JSDF has never been a respected profession — owing to governments and media and academia doing their best to humiliate and handcuff the JSDF for decades. Also, service in the JSDF is poorly compensated, living conditions are almost slum-like, and has nothing like the benefits of serving in the US forces.

Announcing that Japan will double defense spending was the easy part. Spending it on the right things is the hard part. Japan really doesn't know what it needs — either capability or hardware-wise to fight a war. Hopefully, the US side will quietly dispatch some good war planners to Japan, link them with the right people, and have them lay out what is needed (and what the US needs from Japan as well.) It would save a lot of time and wasted effort and money.

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Some other shortcomings that need addressing, and fast, are the practical issues of logistics, war stocks, casualty handling and replacements, mobilization processes, civil defense, and the like. It's hard to fight a war if these aren't in place, and in Japan's case, they are not ready. 

8. How about its cooperation with US forces?

The ability to operate with US forces also needs much work. The two navies are pretty good at operating together, but beyond that things need work. You'd have no idea the Americans and the Japanese have had a defense relationship for 60+ years, given how lacking the two militaries are in this respect.

Until you see a joint operational headquarters in Japan where US and Japanese forces are conducting peacetime and wartime activities necessary to defend Japan, you should be skeptical of officials saying the military alliance is in fighting trim.

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Jointly training: JASDF F15 fighter (three in the foreground) and US military F16 fighter on June 7, 2022. (© Joint Staff Office of the Ministry of Defense)

9. Would Japan play an active role in any US-China conflict over Taiwan?

It had better. If Japan doesn't pitch in, the US-Japan alliance will collapse in short order. Ironically, but not surprisingly, I heard a Japanese scholar say not long ago that if the US did not fight to defend Taiwan the Japanese would leave the alliance. No mention of Japan doing its part in the fighting. Indeed, he pointed out how it would be hard from a legal perspective, and would also upset Japan's economic ties with the PRC. Fortunately, most Japanese are more tuned in than this fellow.

Japan is well aware that "Taiwan's defense is Japan's defense." JSDF officers were saying this years ago, but now it's widely understood. 

Japan will look to see what the Americans are going to do and then figure out what Japan will do. That's not unusual.

I expect that Japan will deploy the JSDF — particularly the Navy and Air Force — and will back up the Americans, and will do some "shooting." The Ground Self Defense Force will be active down in Nansei Shoto with surveillance and long-range weaponry, and maybe even operating with US Marines.

10. Is Japan doing enough to prepare for a Taiwan Contingency?

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that Japan is doing the necessary planning for a Taiwan contingency. And it is unclear if the Japanese and the Americans have a joint plan either. Perhaps the idea is to "wing it" if something happens. That's a good way to lose.

Stepping back and taking stock, Japan has made a lot of progress. If you knew about Japan's defense situation several decades ago, it is almost unrecognizable today. But there's much to do and little time to do it.

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Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.