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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

What Should A $100 Billion Japanese Military Look Like?

a $100 Billion Japanese Military
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Over at Reuters, Tim Kelly and Ju-min Park tender the feel-good story for the week: Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) intends to double defense spending from 1 to 2 percent of GDP, which would equate to roughly $100 billion. Since World War II the island state has maintained an informal cap on defense budgets to soothe worries among neighbors fearful that Tokyo might again march Asia over the precipice into regional or world war.

The cap made sense during the immediate postwar decades. Memories run long, and so do fears. By now, though, Japan has recouped its good name many times over. It menaces no one. Plus, the rise of an increasingly domineering China that covets neighbors’ territory and natural resources, seeks to subvert if not overthrow the regional order, and routinely threatens to use force to take what it wants makes misgivings about Japanese militarism feel quaint.

Now, it’s one thing for party chieftains to make a bold pledge, quite another to coax a people with a strong pacifist streak into supporting it. We will learn something about the character of the Japanese government and society—and thus Japan’s fitness for great sea power—as the LDP tries to put promises into action. One wishes the party well as it strives to rally popular backing for a more muscular Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF).

After all, a more balanced partnership with the United States within the longstanding security alliance would be a healthy development for the allies and the region. So would a more even balance of power between Japan and China.

What Should a $100 Billion Japanese Military Look Like?

How should Tokyo spend its new largesse if the LDP defense program does come to pass? The natural tendency would be to just throw money at the existing force, increasing purchases of what the JSDF is already procuring—especially marquee platforms such as stealth fighters and major surface warships. Given my druthers, I would like to see Tokyo take a more strategically minded approach. Political leaders should ask big questions about what Japan wants to accomplish in the region and the world and design a force able to help accomplish it.

That force might look quite different from a supersized version of the current JSDF. It should be a force built around the principle of access, meaning the ability to preserve or deny access to landmasses, waters, and skies important to Japanese and allied strategy. How could a redesigned JSDF pull this off? By embracing a few principles.

A $100 Billion Japanese Military: Four Ideas

First, Japanese forces need to be mobile, adept at vaulting from island to island to hold embattled ground such as the Senkaku Islands and the Ryukyus chain. Manpower and platforms that let JSDF defenders reach contested islands first and hold them against a Chinese onslaught—light amphibious transports, for instance—are imperative. According to the greats of martial affairs, after all, tactical defense is the strongest form of warfare.

Japanese strategic directives talk about recovering islands lost to an aggressor. Enough with the defeatism. Rather than surrender its geographic advantages, Japanese officialdom must field a force that preserves and widens them.

Second, a bulked-up JSDF needs to be what U.S. Navy wonks call a “distributed” armed force. A multitude of platforms scattered about on the map constitutes a distributed force. The logic behind distributed operations is straightforward. Chinese air and missile forces can reach out from the mainland and strike at allied forces along the first island chain. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will have some success. Allied forces made up of a few capable but pricey platforms—ships, warplanes, and so forth—concentrate a hefty percentage of their combat power in each platform. Losing one of those assets to an aerial assault deducts that share of a fighting force’s overall strength.

But if force designers and constructors decompose the force into plentiful smaller, cheaper platforms, they reduce the percentage of battle power concentrated in each one. A ship or plane can be incapacitated; the force as a whole fights on. Which is the point of operations and strategy.

Think small, cheap, and versatile, Japan.

Third, Japanese strategists should base their deliberations on regulating access to the waters and skies around the islands as well as the islands themselves. The JSDF can help contain the PLA, bottling up Chinese aggressors within the first island chain and simplifying a host of operational problems for the allies. Weaponry that can assail shipping and aircraft in tight nautical passages will be at a premium. The good news is that distributed forces excel at island-chain defense. Manned and unmanned submarines, aircraft, and surface patrol craft can work with the combined fleet while marines on the islands loft missiles the PLA’s way. In so doing the force can stymie access to the Western Pacific and Japanese soil to boot.

Again: think small.

And fourth, a more lavishly funded JSDF needs to be resilient. Distributed operations help out in this regard. So does improving base infrastructure up and down the island chain. In all likelihood PLA rocketeers and airmen will bombard major allied bases such as Yokosuka, Sasebo, and Kadena at the outset of a shooting war. The allies need to harden and disperse their basing posture, including through passive measures such as emplacing materiel underground and active measures such as installing anti-air and anti-missile defenses. Tokyo should also invest in secondary bases, as well as equipment and procedures for creating temporary bases in times of extreme need.

So Japan’s defense buildup need not exude glamour. An airfield or building may prove as important to Japanese success as an Aegis destroyer or aircraft carrier. Tokyo must refuse to succumb to the allure of prestige platforms.

Controlling access to the first island chain will safeguard Japanese territory while helping deter or, if necessary, defeat China. Tokyo should make access its north star when charting budgets and force acquisitions.

Haste.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfighting, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Buckwheat

    October 15, 2021 at 7:24 am

    Japan needs a credible nuclear force that will shield them from Chinese invasion. Anything less, will not provide adequate security for Japan. Yes, there are many reasons why this nuclear strategy could not happen in Japan – being very anti-nuclear to start. To some degree, the same for Australia. But the world has changed, and in particular – China has changed. China only respects power. A multi-faceted strategic nuclear weapons capability will enable Japan and Australia to sift China’s attention elsewhere. While Japan can provide some incredible weapons systems – they must go nuclear to ensure survival. Same for Australia. The world has become much more menacing due to CCP ambition..

  2. NorEastern

    October 15, 2021 at 8:57 am

    This world does not need more nuclear powers. And it is extremely unlikely that any nation would use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional assault. Mutually assured destruction and all of that. Japan and Australia are doing just fine protected by the US nuclear umbrella.

  3. NorEastern

    October 15, 2021 at 9:17 am

    What Japan really needs are more floating Aegis missile systems. They are mobile and provide exceptional offensive and defensive capabilities wherever needed. At $3 billion dollars each Japan could build a destroyer a year over the next decade and with their current eight ships would have 18 mobile BMD platforms.

  4. Redleg69RVN

    October 15, 2021 at 10:40 am

    The passion of the Japanese military as displayed on the battlefields of WWII needs to be reignited against their new foe. The Chinese will take wartime crimes to a new level of inhumanity if given the opportunity.

  5. Klaus von Schnitzel

    October 15, 2021 at 2:04 pm

    A $100 Billion Japanese military should look $15 Billion better than the Taliban Military.

  6. Andrew

    October 16, 2021 at 2:45 am

    Article is right- what are it’s objectives? To just repel an attack on the main 4 islands? To have a robust presence from Tokyo all the way to just north of Taiwan? To maintain free and lawful waters from Indonesia to Russia?

    A nice wish list, without overall strategy and goals known, might include:

    – double the submarine fleet. Easy to do by just increasing the retirement age from 20 years to 30 years

    – vastly increase the offensive and defensive missile stockpile. Ammo runs out very, very quickly.

    – increase the number of Guided Missile Destroyers.

    – improve EW defense and offence.

    – indigenous Gen 5 airplanes.

    – numerous cheap anti submarine platforms to counter the hundreds from North Korea and China.

  7. Doc

    October 16, 2021 at 5:30 am

    Ninjas. Japan needs Ninjas. Grab all of the new shihans that have now sprouted from the Bujunkan and put them to work for a training program for the JDF. Sounds silly? Not until you truly understand the depth of what these men can offer.

  8. Joe Comment

    October 17, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    Japan does still have reputational problems. Just the other day, the newly sworn in Prime Minister Kishida sent an offering to Yasukuni Shrine. Can Japan please spend a little bit of the money to remove the ultra-nationalist displays from that shrine and put the issue to rest? Covets neighbors’ territory? Have you heard of the Kuriles and Takeshima/Dokdo? Can Japan please spend a little bit of money and settle the Kuriles dispute along the lines of the 1956 deal? What would it take for Japan to be able to settle the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute? And the Diaoyu/Senkakus thing, they at least need to admit that a dispute exists. When different governments don’t have the same opinion about something, it’s called a dispute. All these things do Japan no good. If they are popular among the Japanese public, how can the neighboring countries trust Japan’s intentions?

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