Commentary / Japan

Japan needs fight-style reform

Defense Minister Taro Kono has scrapped a plan to deploy Aegis Ashore, a land-based missile defense system. The decision has triggered a series of debate within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Japan’s future defense posture including the issue of “enemy base strike capability.”

Kono reportedly attributed his decision to a technical problem with the system’s rocket boosters, which may fall outside safe areas. The decision is unacceptable if the boosters were the reason for the cancellation. But if the decision were part of a broader strategic consideration to reform the nation’s obsolete style of war-fighting, it is to be commended.

By the same token, I am also ambivalent about the LDP’s internal discussions. Debate on Japan’s strike capability against an enemy base is hardly new. On Feb. 29, 1956, the chief of the then Defense Agency, speaking on behalf of the prime minister, testified in the Diet that “Hitting an attacker’s base is within the scope of self-defense.”

Since this 1956 testimony, however, no weapon systems capable of striking enemy bases have been introduced to the Self-Defense Forces. This is partly because the testimony only stated that “In the event of an urgent and unjustifiable attack by an enemy, the Constitution would not require us to wait for self-destruction.”

No wonder subsequent Diet debate has been either metaphysical or hypothetical and, therefore, surreal. It would be a waste of time for the LDP to only focus on this decades-old theological concept. What Japan truly needs now is what I call “fight-style reform”, i.e., reconsidering its ways of war-fighting from scratch.

U.S. forces can’t defeat the PLA

I reached this conclusion after I read Christian Brose’s great book, “The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-tech Warfare.” Brose is a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and senior policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain.

I found this paragraph in the book to be devastating: “Over the past decade, in U.S. war games against China, the United States has a nearly perfect record: “We have lost almost every single time. The American people do not know this. Most members of Congress do not know this — even though they should. But in the Department of Defense, this is a well-known fact.”

America only defeated weaker enemies

Since August 1990, U.S. forces have fought and won a series of easier wars mainly against weaker but still formidable enemies in the Middle East. Whether Saddam Hussein, al-Qaida or the Islamic State group, the U.S. could eventually defeat its enemies with its state-of-the-art high-tech weapon systems.

As Brose writes, however, “The problem is that America is playing a losing game. Over many decades we have built our military around small numbers of large, expensive, exquisite, heavily manned, and hard to replace platforms that struggle to close the kill chain as one battle network.” They are now a liability for America.

China, he writes, has built large numbers of “smaller, lower cost, expendable, and highly autonomous weapons” “to find and attack America’s small numbers of exponentially more expensive military platforms.” That is why America has been losing the war games. This naturally “requires a sweeping redesign” of U.S. forces.

What competing with China really means

In one alarming chapter, Brose writes, “One of the defining realities of those competitions is that great powers are willing and able to impose real limits on each other’s ambitions, especially with military power.” The implication is ominous not only for Tokyo but also for other U.S. allies in Asia.

The United States, Brose continues, “will certainly need to avoid saddling our military with costly and unnecessary new missions, such as a war with Iran, an intervention in Venezuela or preemptive military action against North Korea.” This grave reality requires Japan to prioritize its strategic interests including, of course, the Senkaku Islands.

Reform of Japan’s war-fighting style

In a nutshell, it’s like the Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.” While the U.S. hare was napping midway through the race, the Chinese tortoise was building up its armed forces slowly but steadily for the past 30 years. The problem is that this is not a fable but an unpleasant reality in East Asia.

This is truly an urgent matter for Tokyo. To survive the next possible military contingencies in this part of the world, Japan has no time to take a decades-long intellectual nap. So much for the post-WWII surreal and theological debate over the concept of “Japan’s exclusively defensive military posture.”

The concept is a tautology because it only states that Japan’s defense policy is exclusively defensive. What is necessary now is for Tokyo to be able to say that, based on the provisions and principles of the Constitution, Japan’s defense policy is exclusively deterrence-oriented, which is no different from other nations.

Akihisa Nagashima, a former deputy defense minister, recently wrote that the bottom line of the discussions over Aegis Ashore and strike capability must be the power of deterrence. I agree. He defended Kono’s decision as a trigger for a broader debate on the importance of deterrence, whether by denial or punishment.

It was in September 2016 when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe officially launched his high-profile campaign for work-style reform in Japan. “Work-style reform is a pillar of the structural reforms that comprise the third arrow of Abenomics. Speed and implementation are of the utmost importance,” he said.

“We must not delay these reforms,” he continued, because “it would positively contribute to a better work-life balance or improved productivity.” If that was the case, why not start a fight-style reform now? We must not delay this reform because it would positively contribute to a better offense-defense balance and improved security.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

Coronavirus banner