It has been reported that the Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff Office is demanding that civilian officials in the Defense Ministry’s internal bureaus delegate to it a significant portion of their power over deciding the SDF’s highest-level operation plan. If this were to take place, uniformed SDF officers’ power could become lopsidedly big, undermining a key layer of civilian control of the SDF’s operations.

The Abe administration cannot be too careful in handling the demand by the Joint Staff Office, which is dominated by uniformed officers. The administration has already amended a Defense Ministry law to abolish the organizational supremacy of civilian defense officials over uniformed officers. The call by the Joint Staff Office, if accepted, carries the risk of significantly weakening the check of SDF officers by civilians, giving the former the upper hand in making decisions on the SDF’s operations.

What’s at stake is the basic plan for SDF operations — which is classified under the state secrets law. The plan covers the coming five years, and undergoes a major revision in its third year but is also fine-tuned annually. The daily missions of the three branches of the SDF are carried out based on the basic plan. The Joint Staff Office takes into consideration the latest security situation surrounding Japan in operating the units of the SDF’s three branches.

The next basic plan will have added significance because it will reflect the new guidelines on Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, which were updated by Tokyo and Washington last April, as well as the Abe administration’s security legislation enacted last year. The guidelines have removed the effective geographical boundaries of Japan’s logistic support for the U.S. military imposed under the 1997 guidelines, potentially expanding the scope of the SDF’s joint operations with American forces on a global scale. Under the security legislation, Japan can now take part in joint military actions with its allies in contingencies outside its territory and operate as called for by the guidelines, among other things. Given the nature of the SDF’s new basic plan, it should be worked out with the input of a wide range of views and opinions, and civilian officials in the internal bureaus should play an important role. To significantly reduce their power will risk adopting a plan from a narrow viewpoint that excludes relevant nonmilitary considerations.

The revision of the law for the establishment of the Defense Ministry last June abolished the long-standing rule that required high-ranking civilian officials to assist the defense minister from a position superior to uniformed SDF officers, and the internal bureaus to which these civilian officials belonged, the Joint Staff Office and the staff office of each branch of the SDF have come to assist the defense minister as equals. As part of the change, the Bureau of Operational Policy, which was part of the internal bureaus and drafted basic policy, was abolished and its task was divided between the Joint Staff Office and the Defense Policy Bureau

As a result, the Joint Staff Office, in place of civilian officials, came to have the sole power to devise operational plans of the maritime, air and ground branches of the SDF, and command and carry out the operations. But civilian officials still keep part of the power to develop the basic plan because they work out the defense minister’s instructions — on the basis of which the operational plans of the SDF’s three branches are crafted — and to ask the minister for approval for the operational plans. The Joint Staff Office is reportedly demanding that these powers still retained by civilian officials be delegated to it.

Civilian officials in the Defense Ministry are said to be resisting the demand on the grounds that planning the SDF’s operations and commanding its day-to-day operations are different in nature and that the internal bureaus, which are dominated by civilian officials, legally have the function of general coordination in matters related to the SDF. They point out that the Defense Ministry law stipulates that the internal bureaus take charge of basic matters and coordination related to defense and surveillance as well as of the basic administrative matters concerning SDF actions.

Chief of Staff Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano has this explanation: The Joint Staff Office is just seeking to sort out office work-related problems and not demanding delegation of power from civilian officials.

While the prime minister, who is the chief commander of the SDF, and the Diet, which approves his defense-related major decisions, constitute the highest layers of civilian control of the SDF, the defense minister, directly involved in overseeing the operations of the SDF, is responsible for day-to-day control of the SDF. Since the defense minister alone cannot effectively control the SDF, civilian officials in the ministry play an important role in civilian control of the SDF. Uniformed officers may be experts on military affairs but may fail to take a wider perspective by concentrating on maximizing the effectiveness of military operations. Civilian officials have an important duty of correcting the views of uniformed officers if they turn out to be overly narrow.

Japan’s modern history in the lead up to its World War II defeat in 1945 shows that the absence of civilian control of the military by politicians and government officials led the Imperial armed forces to make gravely erroneous decisions and to even effectively control the government, thereby playing havoc with the fate of the nation. The Abe administration should realize that accepting this demand by SDF officers could create a situation in which the defense minister and the prime minister are swayed by the opinions of uniformed officers, meaning they would effectively play a greater role than elected officials in making key decisions on defense.

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