HONOLULU – Thirty years ago, two members of the U.S. Congress had a good idea. Facing debilitating service rivalry and an archaic military authority system, and shamed by two failed military operations attributed to the inability of the individual military services to work well together, two members of Congress — Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. William Nichols — are credited with turning the situation around. The resulting legislation, the Goldwater-Nichols Act, among other things, compelled the U.S. military services to cooperate, a term that came to be known as “joint operations.”
One of the main drivers of this modernization, other than the need to be competent during the standoff with the Soviet Union, was the abject failures of the Iranian hostage rescue mission in 1980 and the then-fresh invasion of Grenada by U.S. forces in 1983. Both operations were plagued by interservice rivalry despite good intentions. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 set out to rectify this.
This brings us to Japan, long criticized for its lack of joint operational skill despite its extensive association with the U.S. military and the dangerous neighborhood (objectively much more dangerous than North America) in which it lies. Its joint track record is not good.
Past interservice bickering
Japan’s last major expeditionary military operations during World War II were infamous for their lack of “jointness,” as the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy often openly bickered about resources and campaign coordination, frequently leading to disastrous logistics failures and energy-consuming infighting. Inheriting this legacy, today’s undermanned, underpaid and under-respected Self-Defense Forces find themselves attempting to hold back an aggressive China, on perpetual ballistic missile alert and fighting a never-ending internal battle to defend their shrinking budgetary shares. The three SDF branches, even if they were interested in becoming more joint, can scarcely plan for the future, let alone think about joint operational reform.
Since the three branches seem incapable of joint reform independently, it is logical to conclude what the SDF needs most is the Japanese equivalent of a Goldwater-Nichols Act.
Under a pro-defense prime minister and a logical and dedicated defense minister, the time for such reform is now — but there is much to overcome first. Critics of postwar Japanese military thought, with some justice, point to institutional stove-piping, interservice rivalry, budgetary infighting and outright strategic disinterest in joint thought as reasons why Japan has not yet become joint. Piling onto that, being joint is expensive: it means additional military headquarters that require staffs, revamping traditional authority, a new emphasis on military doctrine, and changes in education and training, which all cost energy and time and, therefore, money.
But why should Japan be joint? Despite the clear advantages such improvement would add to the U.S.-Japan alliance, there’s no immediately obvious answer until one looks more closely at Japan’s nascent capabilities and its security situation. Japan will activate its long-awaited Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade sometime this March. The brigade is Japan’s first attempt at real amphibious operations in over 70 years. It goes without saying such operations would benefit greatly from joint operations; no soldier wishes to storm a beach without air cover, after all. Further, the RQ-4 Global Hawk, set for initial operations in the next few years, has been advertised by the Defense Ministry as a joint unit from the ground up, which makes good sense considering its reconnaissance mission.
Further, the stakes for successful joint operations are higher than it first seems. There is no shortage of regional rivals to challenge Japanese territorial claims and slowly eat away at Japan’s borders by running the individual branches ragged. It is not lost on Japan that the United States did this very thing to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s via aggressive defense spending and constant testing of Soviet readiness; jointness offers a way to pool resources to best prevent this from happening.
For a chronically underfunded Defense Ministry, these resources are no small matter, and Japan’s biggest obstacle to reform has been itself. The government continues to operate under an antiquated defense appropriations system called the Midterm Defense Plan, which ostensibly predicts and allocates funds for defense acquisitions for the next five years — an impossible job in the volatile Indo-Pacific defense environment.
Poorly matched procurement
Like a shopping list, each service is given the amount of money procurements are thought to cost the moment the plan is signed, and are then told to go to the store. Once a defense appropriations plan is signed, all defense procurements become zero sum: as time marches on and exchange rates, security imperatives, negotiations with foreign suppliers and defense priorities change, the three branches are forced to cut or cancel in favor of emergent priorities based on real-world requirements. This system can best be described as a peacetime procurement system poorly matched to the realities of the Indo-Pacific region.
Additionally, this system practically forces the individual branches to fight with each other not only for budgetary allocations but also for relevancy. That fight almost always ends up with the Maritime Self-Defense Force as the clear monetary winner (culturally, Japan fiercely clings to an “island nation” mentality and the MSDF faces the brunt of dangerous situations abroad), the Air Self-Defense Force second, and the Ground Self-Defense Force, now without the Soviet threat, a distant third.
The good news is jointness is not a foreign concept in today’s Japan. For example, the primary military unit tasked with defending Japan from ballistic missiles, called Task Force BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense), is comprised of members from the MSDF and the ASDF. In short order the GSDF will likely be a part of this BMD enterprise as it is expected to take charge of the soon-to-be introduced Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Japan also established its first joint headquarters, the Japan Joint Staff, in 2006, which built upon the previously existing Joint Staff Council established in 1954.
While not yet capable of large-scale expeditionary operations, the SDF will eventually become so, and will have to get along with itself. It is safe to say sooner or later the government will find a way to either amend the Constitution or interpret it in a way that allows Japan to execute military operations to address its security concerns.
Just the beginning
As history shows, an armed force’s efficiency — and survivability — is eminently tested abroad. Recent moves by the SDF to deploy to Iraq and to South Sudan, and to send elements to serve in the anti-piracy task force off the coast of Somalia are only toes in the water — while the operations demonstrate expeditionary capability, they are only just the beginning.
Thirty years after Goldwater-Nichols, the United States still struggles to achieve better jointness but possesses real combat success owed to joint combat power that is measurable, verifiable and most important of all, repeatable. Much of the old “service rivalry” that Goldwater and Nichols set out to remove is gone or relegated to the football field; caught up in budgetary squeezes and undernourished personnel rosters, a generation of commanders have seen jointness as a way to multiply their forces and effectively unify their commands to better battle the enemy with faster and more powerful results.
For all its faults, the U.S. military is in fact better for being more joint, and in the joint era has caused and suffered fewer military and civilian casualties, has minimized unnecessary damage compared with previous eras and has achieved operational success during conflicts faster than in pre-joint eras. Anyone doubting this need only compare the aforementioned 1983 Grenada operation to the 2003 Iraq War (colloquially termed “Shock and Awe”) to see the difference an effective joint operation makes.
There is no reason why Japan could not forge this legacy for itself — or, if it prefers, it could keep the jointness it inherited from 1945.
Maj. John Wright is a U.S. Air Force officer, pilot and a Mike and Maureen Mansfield fellow. He is currently serving as Japan country director, international affairs, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and not those of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. government, Mansfield Foundation or any foreign government. © 2018, The Diplomat; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency
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