Maintain civilian control over SDF

The Defense Ministry has disclosed a plan to restructure itself. It includes various proposals ranging from establishing a Defense Equipment Agency, which will improve procurement and management of equipment bought and used by the three branches of the Self-Defense Forces, to creating an administrative vice defense minister for international affairs and assigning 56 uniformed SDF officers to the Internal Bureau, which has been dominated by civilian officials.

Among the proposals, a call for concentrating power to decide on SDF unit operations in the Joint Staff Office, which is manned by uniformed officers, is the most problematic. So far, the Joint Staff Office and the Operational Policy Bureau, which is manned by civilian officials and is part of the Internal Bureau, have been in charge of the operations of SDF units, including surveillance at peace time. The ministry said that the planned concentration of power in the Joint Staff Office is necessary because the functions of the Joint Staff Office and the Operational Policy Bureau overlap and that such concentration of the power is necessary to ensure quick and efficient operations of SDF units.

The Defense Ministry may think that the proposed change in the decision-making structure over operations of SDF units is necessary in view of China’s activities near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. But the proposal carries the danger of weakening or even discarding civilian control of the SDF since the defense minister and the prime minister would make the final decisions over the actions of SDF units without receiving advice from civilian officials. The ministry should rethink this proposal from the viewpoint of maintaining civilian control of the SDF.

The proposal would eradicate the chances of civilian officials advising the defense minister on the operation of SDF units and the voices of uniformed officers, especially the chief of Joint Staff, will become dominant. Not only the defense minister but also the prime minister should remember that the operations of SDF units are the pivot for Japan’s defense-related activities. They must consider whether it is really rational to prevent civilian officials from expressing their opinions on this crucially important matter.

Uniformed officers may be experts on military affairs, but by concentrating on things from the viewpoint of maximizing the effectiveness of military operations, they may fail to take a wider perspective. Under the proposal, the defense minister and the prime minister might have to make important decisions only on the basis of uniformed officers’ opinions. They also need advice from civilian officials, who take wider factors — including political, social and legal factors — into account for SDF unit operations.

Having only the defense minister and the prime minister make final decisions on the operations of SDF units does not constitute civilian control of the SDF. A decision-making process that truly represents civilian control of the SDF must involve civilian officials from the start to the finish, with the final decisions being made by the defense minister and prime minister.

  • Osaka48

    In the U.S., of course, the POTUS is the ultimate Commander-in-Chief but he has the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff…top members of each branch of the military.

    We can’t assume that the POTUS (alone) can fully understand any developing military situation without the advice of the JCS who are tasked with making countermeasure plans for a multitude of military defensive, offensive situations.

    Japan should consider such an “advisory” system as it is doubtful that any “civilian” politician can make tactical decisions (only political ones) in the face of a fast acting military crisis.