The Abe administration wants to strengthen Japan’s intelligence-gathering capabilities in the Middle East after the recent hostage disaster revealed its shortcomings in gaining information through military channels.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he intends to deploy more Self-Defense Forces personnel at Japanese embassies in the region, noting it is difficult for officials outside the military to obtain intelligence provided by foreign armed forces.
To make the defense attache system effective, experts point to the need to bolster training for would-be attaches and say the government should come up with a deployment plan based on a long-term policy.
Following are questions and answers regarding the defense attache system:
Who serves as defense attaches and what are their tasks?
Defense attaches are ranking uniformed SDF officers dispatched to embassies and other Japanese missions abroad.
They are basically chosen from the ranks of Ground and Air Self-Defense Force colonels and Maritime Self-Defense Force captains, in line with similar ranking officers appointed by other countries.
Attaches receive language training and coaching on information-gathering activities at the Defense Ministry, and they are posted to the Foreign Ministry before being assigned to a three-year stint.
Technically, their main duty is to collect military information through exchanges with defense officials in the country where they are stationed, or attaches dispatched from other countries.
But they are also expected to attempt to cultivate well-informed sources outside of government, including journalists and well-informed observers, and create informal intelligence channels.
What is the significance of deploying defense attaches abroad?
The administration believes dispatching more defense attaches will be effective in developing the necessary intelligence network needed to protect the roughly 1.3 million Japanese citizens living abroad.
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said highly accurate and critical military intelligence can only be obtained through specific means because such information is often highly confidential, and for Japan, only SDF personnel are in a position to obtain such information.
Noboru Yamaguchi, a former defense attache who was posted to the United States and is now a professor at the National Defense Academy of Japan, said uniformed attaches have broad access to military information, as well as to installations and briefings on defense policies.
Uniformed attaches also help coordinate defense cooperation efforts with the country where they are assigned.
What plans are afoot regarding defense attaches?
Abe said the government is looking to post a uniformed attache at the Japanese Embassy in Amman, where it set up a local emergency headquarters at the time of the hostage crisis.
Although no concrete decision has been made on specific countries or on an increase in attaches, the Middle East apparently figures prominently.
“The government needs to strengthen its intelligence-gathering network in the Middle East” amid the growing threat of transnational terrorism, a Defense Ministry official said.
Even before the recent hostage crisis, the region has long been important for Japan on various fronts, including access to oil and other natural resources, and economic opportunities, the official added.
A media report said Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is based, could be another place to receive a defense attache.
How many defense attaches are currently deployed overseas, including in the Middle East?
As of Feb. 16 there were 56 SDF attaches posted at embassies in 38 countries and two public missions, according to the Defense Ministry.
Defense attaches are currently posted at the Japanese mission in Kabul and at embassies in six Middle Eastern countries; Israel, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Lebanon.
By region, Asia and Europe have the largest numbers of Japanese defense attaches, each with 16 in 11 embassies.
The government increased the number in Africa after the 2013 terrorist attack on a natural gas complex in Algeria that left 10 Japanese nationals dead.
Before the 2013 incident, Japan had only two defense attaches posted in Africa, at the embassies in Egypt and Sudan. The terrorist attack in Algeria prompted the government to strengthen its network on the continent, partly because many African countries have strong militaries, the official said.
The government currently has uniformed attaches in Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and South Africa, as well as with a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.
In addition, the ministry plans to send an attache to Nigeria and to Morocco by the end of March.
If there had been a defense attache at the embassy in Amman, would that officer have been able to help resolve the hostage crisis favorably?
Not enough information or evidence has been provided to draw a conclusion, according to experts.
“I have no idea if there were instances (in which the government) failed to acquire available information . . . from Jordanian military personnel” because of the absence of a defense attache, said Mikio Haruna, a journalist and visiting professor at Waseda University whose studies include intelligence-gathering.
Haruna called for disclosure of as much information as possible on how the government handled the crisis, including whether any shortcomings point to the need for more defense attaches and whether the government should be held accountable. Those details are now under review by a committee chaired by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita.
If the administration is so eager to increase defense attaches, it has to explain why, Haruna indicated.
Experts also want the government and politicians to always make clear to defense attaches what kind of information they need.
What should be the focus of the defense attache system?
Haruna pointed out that it is important to enhance training to ensure SDF officers are prepared for overseas postings as defense attaches.
Experts recommend additional training on handling confidential information, counterespionage measures and avoiding compromising situations. They say the government must get serious about fostering professional defense attaches instead of thinking of it as a part of a career path for Defense Ministry officials, as apparently is the present case.
They also say it may be necessary to assign specialists, maybe from the private sector, to support the attaches.
The government needs a long-term, comprehensive plan for posting defense attaches to make the most of the system, instead of taking impromptu steps in response to individual incidents, Haruna said.
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