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US-Japan Defense: Smoke and Mirrors or is Something Better Coming?

When there's talk of a restructuring US-Japan force coordination, it conjures up images of a joint headquarters focused on defending Japan. What can we expect?



Prime Minister Kishida talks with US President Biden, November 2023, San Francisco, US (Courtesy of the Cabinet Public Relations Office)

The Financial Times recently reported that when President Joseph Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meet in April they will announce a plan to restructure the relationship between the United States and Japanese forces in Japan. The objective is to make for more effective US-Japan operational planning and exercises – with an eye to better handling the threat from the People's Republic of China.  

Articles like this one produce a flurry of excitement – if not hope.

Especially as the basic idea is a good one – and decades overdue.

There's a Need

Despite a six-decade defense relationship, US and Japanese forces still can't work together very well. (Except for the two navies and the area of missile defense.) Furthermore, they would be hard-pressed to fight a war together, say, in the event Taiwan is attacked.

Together, US and Japanese forces are less than the sum of their parts.

So, when there's talk of a restructuring, it conjures up images of finally having a joint headquarters in Japan. That could be where American and Japanese officers get on with the business of defending Japan. For example, coordinating training, exercises, and patrols, and planning and doing what's necessary for peacetime and wartime operations.  

You mean there isn't such a place?  No there isn't. 


And this really is a prerequisite for any sort of serious Japan-US defense strategy. Otherwise, everything is done on a haphazard ad hoc basis.  

The 'Financial Times' Report

Is this about to be solved?

Read the Financial Times article a few times and the excitement wears off.

It seems the idea is to rejigger US Forces Japan (USFJ) by installing a 4-star General in command. (It's currently a 3-star.) Then it would let USFJ plan some exercises and share more information with the new Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) joint operational headquarters. That's set to come online next year in 2025.  

But, for the foreseeable future, the ultimate "command" of all US forces in Japan will remain in Hawaii at USINDOPACOM headquarters.

The article does suggest that some thought will be given to a more effective operational tie-up with the JSDF sometime in the future.

But, for now, nothing reported in the Financial Times piece will do much, if anything, to improve the ability of US and Japanese forces to operate together. And if push comes to shove, to fight together.

How Many Stars is Not the Point

First, assigning a 4-star general to USFJ isn't exactly salvation on the wings. "4-stars" ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for over 20 years. How did they do?  Winning wars does not appear to be a requirement for promotion to General.

Three-star general Lt Gen Ricky N. Rupp is the Commander, USFJ, and Commander, Fifth Air Force, PAF, Yokota Air Base, and is the senior US military representative in Japan. (Courtesy of USFJ website)

There are exceptions to everything, of course. If they recalled retired Admiral Robert Willard and his team that ran USINDOPACOM from 2009-2012 and sent them to Japan with proper marching orders and authority, I'd change my mind.

Second, without any operational control over anything, USFJ looks to continue its principal role as the "designated apologist." (This is said only half tongue-in-cheek.) That happens when Japan complains about something the American military has done.

A 4-star commander's apologies might have more clout. However, USFJ will still seem irrelevant when it comes to Japanese and US forces doing actual operations and fighting.

Inefficiency of Coordinating Through Hawaii

Japanese forces now coordinate with USINDOPACOM in Hawaii – which is inefficient, to say the least. It would be better to set up a headquarters (or something serving that function) in Japan to handle the bilateral relationship – and emplace a commander with real operational authority – as in "able to conduct a war."

This requires an entirely different mindset and structure than currently exists.

And of course, the Japanese have to be fully invested as well. They need to devote the necessary attention and resources.

It is not apparent this is in the works on either side.

Plenty of people have pointed out these shortcomings over the years, and there have been some good ideas. But there's never been interest at levels – either civilian or military – where it matters.

Japanese and American officers shake hands on the commencement of the Iron Fist 24 joint military exercises. (Courtesy of USINDOPACOM, February 28, 2024)

Indeed, US alliance managers told us for decades: "The relationship has never been stronger." And, they said that every exercise held with the Japanese was a "great success,"  and "strengthened interoperability."

Nevertheless, the commanders at USINDOPACOM since, say, early 2012 onwards couldn't be bothered to push for bringing Japan and the US closer together in a meaningful – operational – way.  Not that the Japanese ever really pushed for this either.


Japan's Security Policy Developments

The Financial Times article quotes former USINDOPACOM commander from 2018-2021, now retired Admiral Philip Davidson, as saying:

Japan's new national security policy is the most positive security development in East Asia in this century. The recognition that our two nations' defense strategies have converged makes improvements in our day-to-day command and control the logical next step.

One might fairly say it was a logical next step years ago. Indeed, for the entire period of Admiral Davidson's tenure.  Every USINDOPACOM commander since at least Admiral Samuel Locklear (who arrived in 2012) should have had this as priority #1 ー and been judged accordingly. 

Without a capable JSDF that's solidly linked to US forces and able to operate together, the US will be hard-pressed to maintain its position in the Indo-Pacific. Or to prevail in a conflict. It was obvious, even back then.

Too much time was wasted –by people in Washington and Hawaii who had positions and titles (and presumably responsibility.) Meanwhile, China built itself up into a powerful military and a serious threat.

JGSDF aircraft conduct flight operations with USS GREEN BAY (LPD 20) during #IronFist24.(Courtesy of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Facebook)

In Need of a Sense of Urgency

Even now, it's not clear that there is a sense of urgency to improve the US-Japan military relationship so it can properly fight a war. Making superficial modifications and installing a 4-star at USFJ with a slightly expanded role – to 'send a message' to China does not indicate urgency.

As if the Chinese aren't smart enough to understand US-Japan actual operational capabilities.

But let's see what is announced at the Biden-Kishida meeting. Maybe we'll be surprised. But maybe not.

It is nonetheless astonishing that after 60+ years the Americans and Japanese are such "strangers." And the military-to-military relationship is so superficial, if not "Potemkin" in too many respects. Again, except for the two navies and missile defense, which show that it can be done if tried.

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) Sailors receive a tour on the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force JS Izumo on April 2, 2024 (Courtesy of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Facebook)

Getting to a 'Joint Task Force Nansei Shoto'

But there is some good news: much good work is being done at lower levels between the Japanese and American forces.  

If Biden and Kishida issued the order: "Do the necessary so we can fight together (and go down to Yokosuka Naval Base if you need some ideas)" they'd be surprised how quickly things can come together.  

But, enough with the complaining.  What's my advice for getting a joint/combined US-Japan headquarters in Japan? 

Here's one idea: 

Establish a "Joint Task Force Nansei Shoto,"  

This would have an immediate real-world mission ーdefending Japan's southern islands and nearby areas. That requires real day-to-day coordination, specifically assigned forces, and command and control to carry out the joint patrols, exercises, and planning needed to defend an area that's already under Chinese pressure. 

Put the actual headquarters on Okinawa. But, if necessary, you could run it out of Kyushu.

This approach would also have considerable political and psychological effects on Japan, the US, and partners such as South Korea and Taiwan. But even more on the PRC.

Get this right and later expand to the entire US-Japan military relationship.


How hard is it?  

As hard as you want to make it.


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."