Commentary / Japan

Can the SDF age gracefully?

by Yoshimitsu Sato

The security environment around Japan has become increasingly tense with North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, as well as China’s rising power and expansionary military strategy without transparency. In such a situation, the Defense Ministry and Self-Defense Forces must secure highly qualified personnel who can respond to diversified and internationalized missions.

However, despite rising expectations from the public for the ministry and the SDF, the recruitment of uniformed personnel has been a serious challenge. In fact, as of March 31, 2018, the number of authorized positions for uniformed SDF personnel was 247,154, while the actual number was 226,789, a gap of about 20,000 people and a staffing rate of 91.8 percent.

Most recently, the National Defense Program Guidelines for fiscal 2019 and beyond identified securing human resources for SDF personnel as “an imminent challenge in the face of shrinking and aging population with declining birth rates.” Therefore, it is important to analyze the current population shift in Japan and explore how to reinforce the human resource base in the SDF.

Japan’s aging challenge is serious. The government’s white paper on the low fertility rate and annual report on the aging society elaborate on the urgency that surrounds Japan’s aging and overall population decline. The nation entered a long-term population decline in 2011 and the population is estimated to decrease to 80.8 million by 2065. The working-age population (15 to 64) is projected to decline to 45.3 million by 2065 alongside the decrease of the total population. In contrast, the elderly population (defined as 65 and older) is estimated to reach 38.4 percent of the total population by 2065. This means 1 in 3 Japanese will be over 65.

Given such circumstances, the SDF has been taking various recruitment measures to mitigate the impact of the aging society and population decline.

For instance, as a measure to better prepare the organization for the shrinking population, the SDF raised the upper age limit for entrance of new personnel from 26 to 32 in order to expand the recruitment pool. As a measure to accommodate an aging society, the Defense Ministry announced last December that it would gradually raise the mandatory retirement age of SDF personnel starting in 2020. For example, the current retirement age for colonels and captains is 56 but will be 57 in 2021.

There are other measures that may be worth considering as well. One is introducing different upper age limits for each service. In the United States, for instance, each service has a different enlistment age limit (marines: 28; coast guard: 31; army: 34; navy and air force: 39). Given that the personnel requirements for the SDF services differ in terms of physical abilities, it is worth considering different age limits for each service, as is the case in the U.S.

In today’s Japan, the current average life expectancy for men is 81.1 years and for women is 87.3 years. This is estimated to grow every year and will reach 85.0 and 91.4, respectively, by 2065. The extension of life expectancy indicates that people may be healthier at older ages than before. As the times change and the average life continues to be longer, the Defense Ministry should consider further extension of mandatory retirement ages in order to utilize older people who have plenty of knowledge, skills and experience.

It is essential not only to regularly review the implementation status of current measures and make them appropriate, but also create innovative and fresh ideas without Japan’s own stereotypical views.

Looking at the situation of the declining birthrates and aging populations across Asia, the total fertility rates in Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan are all below the replacement level, like Japan. Researching how these societies secure the manpower necessary for their defense will be helpful in devising measures for Japan.

Finally, what is important is that the Defense Ministry and SDF complete the mission of national defense by strengthening the human resource base.

To do that, it is necessary to frequently assess whether the current authorized strength of SDF personnel is the proper number to respond to increasing threats around Japan. Although it is difficult to increase the authorized strength of SDF personnel with a limited budget and legal constraints, the Defense Ministry and SDF need to look ahead to the changing security environment and cutting-edge military technology and calculate the exact number of personnel required for the national defense.

Yoshimitsu Sato is a nonresident fellow with the Japan Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. ©2019, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5