WASHINGTON -- Japan is debating historic legislation that would allow its troops to cooperate with the U.S. military in far wider areas than has been possible in the post-war era. Why the drastic change in security policy? What do the two allies need to do to achieve the proposed law's aims?
To get some answers, the Nikkei Asian Review recently sat down with Jim Thomas, vice president and director of studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington D.C. He previously worked for the U.S. Department of Defense and led the 2005-2006 Quadrennial Defense Review as deputy assistant secretary.
Thomas says the two countries should consider ways to ensure U.S. forces in Japan will be able to continue performing their functions properly even after Japan is attacked. "Alliance managers should ... focus more on 'lower signature strike forces' to create a new 'forward presence' that may be less visible but is far more viable in an era of extended-range sensor-strike warfare," he said.
Q: What do you make of Japan's move to introduce a more proactive security policy?
A: We welcome steps that Japan is taking to move forward with legislation on collective self-defense. This is important in terms of moving toward an alliance that is more of a partnership among equals over time. Logistics cooperation is one key area for future cooperation.
With respect to the revision of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, thinking beyond contingencies on the Korean Peninsula is very important, and being able to address more ambiguous situations that may fall short of full-armed conflict as well as space and cyber security issues.
Q: Is the Japan-U.S. alliance heading in a better direction under the new defense guidelines?
A: The revision of the guidelines is an important step. We are moving beyond the old construct of "situations in areas surrounding Japan" to address a wider range of increasingly more concrete challenges, especially in gray-zone areas.
Both strengthen international peace and security, especially in the region. At the same time, they will help deterring or preventing conflict in the future. As a next step, it may be worth considering a new bargain between the allies.
Q: What do you mean by a new bargain?
A: During the Cold War, some Japanese worried they could be "entrapped" into war by their ally, the U.S., but today the tables are turned: Increasingly Americans worry they could be "entrapped" in a conflict that begins as small-scale, creeping or gray zone conflict but rapidly escalates. On the other side of the alliance equation, there are concerns among some Japanese that one day the country might be abandoned by the U.S.
For instance, U.S. forces might be tempted to one day withdraw or evacuate from Japan in a crisis, especially if the ports and airbases from which they operate in Japan were vulnerable to missile attacks. Rather than trying to avoid these concerns, as allies we should address them directly and honestly.
In a new alliance bargain, Japan should take measures to increase base resiliency and the survivability of airbases and ports and their ability to sustain operations under attack, as well as find ways to make additional bases available to American forces such as Japan Air Self-Defense Force or civil airfields.
At the same time, the U.S. military should reconsider what forces it places in Japan with the intent of maximizing their combat deterrence power. For example, ground-based missile forces or a greater concentration of submarine forces in and around Japan might be very useful to augment and strengthen an American forward defense posture. Alliance managers should broaden their view of the instruments of "forward presence" beyond the traditional icons like aircraft carriers, and focus more on "lower signature strike forces" to create a new "forward presence" that may be less visible but is far more viable in an era of extended-range sensor-strike warfare.
Q: What can Japan do to improve its resilience, and what can the U.S. and Japan do together?
A: One of the big issues is that the Japanese islands have been described in the past as being a large aircraft carrier in the Pacific. But our military presence in Japan is concentrated in Okinawa. We need to consider dispersing U.S. forces across all of the Japanese islands, not only to military facilities of SDF but also to civil airfields.
Q: That should be good for Okinawa.
A: Okinawa remains very valuable and its strategically important both for Japan and the U.S. We should diversify U.S. military presence in Japan so that our force is less concentrated in Okinawa, and Okinawa is less of a target potentially in the future.
Q: Are you saying that threats to Japan are getting so high as to require the U.S. forward presence to be less visible and become more like a ninja?
A: Ideally, we would take steps to improve the resiliency of the bases long before threats materialize. If you wait until the threat is there and you are reactive, the situation will be far more dangerous. Now is the time to begin taking steps to enhance resiliency, so that it makes it far less likely that an aggressor would attack Japan, or allied forces in Japan, with the hope that they could achieve a "knockout blow" early in a conflict. They would have to know that the forces there not only are survivable, but that they could conduct retaliatory campaigns as well.
Q: Does that mean U.S. forces are willing to stay in Japan long-term, even if threats from other countries rapidly increase?
A: I think the strong preference of current and future U.S. policymakers, as well as their counterparts in Tokyo, is to maintain a very robust military presence or a military commitment to the defense of Japan long term. The question is -- how can we do this most effectively?
At present, the U.S. has a sizable commitment to the security of Japan in the form of its forward presence; namely it maintains a large inventory of short-range combat aircraft at Kadena, amphibious forces are based at Sasebo, and naval forces at Yokosuka.
But in the future, we may think about augmenting these forces with broader constellation of bases and ports across Japan, as well as different types of military forces. We may think more about submarines as a sign of America's commitment relative to surface ships. We may think more about air and missile defense that's integrated between allied forces in the defense of Japan.
Q: Japan's policy makers seem to fear that the U.S. military may be forced to reduce its presence or even withdraw from Japan because of the serious threat posed by China's anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capability.
A: There is always concern that if the Americans move away from the aircraft carrier or from land-based tactical aircraft this means that they are less committed to the defense of Japan. We have to evolve the character of our security commitment to Japan over time, so that it is consistent with the security environment and the challenges that we face.
Q: In what ways should the U.S. military deployment change?
A: It's impossible to predict what will happen, but perhaps I can offer a personal vision about how our posture could evolve. In terms of our combat aircraft in Japan, over time, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) should take greater responsibility for defending the airspace of Japan. That would free up more U.S. combat aircraft to increase their capacity for strike operations. This would help to deter hostile countries.
For our naval forces, we might want to think more about establishing forward operating locations for U.S. submarines in Japan and how they might work more closely with Japanese submarine forces. If those forces could operate from Japan, it would increase their "on-station" time in the Western Pacific and avoid having to return to Guam or Hawaii or the West Coast of the U.S. to replenish supplies, change crews, and rearm. We might be able to greatly increase their patrol time in the vicinity of Japan, which would be very useful for defending Japan.
Q: So you think the division of labor between the U.S. and Japan forces should be changed to better handle new challenges, with submarines being a key element of that change?
A: Yes, the key is to allow the alliance to keep more submarines at sea in the vicinity of Japan that would have strike capabilities. This would enhance conventional deterrence.
Another area to consider in a new division of labor would be with respect to ground forces. My personal view would be that in the future additional U.S. ground forces should be forward stationed in Japan where they too could have anti-ship capabilities, as well as air and missile defense capabilities and some electronic warfare capabilities.
Along the sea island chain of Japan working side-by-side with their Japanese counterparts, they could help to create an anti-access and area denial posture, vis-a-vis any potential aggressor. Unlike aircraft or ships that could quickly move from Japan to elsewhere, ground forces are there to stay. They may be more important in terms of demonstrating U.S. political resolve to meet our commitments to the defense of Japan.
Q: The Japanese government is now trying to better support the U.S. forces operating outside Japan. But are you saying we should pay more attention to defending Japan?
A: The first priority of the alliance must be the defense of Japan. This is going to require much greater efforts on the part of the Ministry of Defense and the Japan Self-Defense Forces. It also requires greater efforts on the part of the Japanese Coast Guard and National Police, and other non-Self-Defense Forces.
But let us be clear: it also requires greater efforts from the U.S. military in terms of how we set conditions in the Western Pacific so that we maximize immediately available combat strike power that is there as a deterrent to prevent a conflict.
Q: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is struggling to convince the public that Japan would benefit from the proposed security framework, especially the idea of collective self-defense.
A: If Japan was attacked under the existing treaty and arrangements, we would be able to cooperate and do things. I think the real value of the legislation for a collective self-defense is less about conflict and more about how we might work together in peacetime to deter and prevent conflict. You can't wait until war to be prepared to exercise collective self-defense. We have to demonstrate a posture in peacetime, and in crisis, that shows we are fully prepared in the event of war and signals our strategic solidarity as allies. By demonstrating that our forces are prepared to work together across the full continuum, we can present as a much greater deterrent to a potential aggressor.
Q: In addition to defending Japan, it is also vital to ensure U.S. and Japanese military operations surrounding Japan are resilient, so that we can keep operating inside China's A2AD domain. How can the two allies better cooperate in this?
A: There are several areas that we can improve on. One, as we have discussed already, is improving the resiliency of our forces' bases. Another is to think about next-generation air and missile defense. The U.S. and Japan could consider new technologies for air and missile defense such as the use of directed energy systems or high-powered microwaves, electromagnetic rail guns including both ground based and naval systems.
Q: What about undersea cooperation?
A: Japan has major advantages in terms of undersea capabilities. It's very strong in its submarine systems. Given the geography of Japan, there may be new opportunities for deploying different types of sensor arrays. From the first island chain into the East China Sea, there may be opportunities for deploying sensors that can detect submarines. It could be a mobile system or it could be an array that's left on the seabed.
If these were tied back to the land, perhaps in the future, the Ground Self-Defense Force could have even an anti-submarine warfare capability. You could have a cruise missile that could be launched by the Ground Self-Defense Force, and if it has a torpedo warhead, you can conduct anti-submarine warfare more effectively than you can with aircraft or ships. There may be new technological opportunities that Japan could display.
I would say that cooperation in space is another possibility. Japan is launching the QZSS satellites for navigation. There may be opportunities for the U.S. and Japan to cooperate in space to a greater extent. Hosted satellite payloads represent a promising area for cooperation, so the Japanese government and the U.S. government could share the use of some satellite systems, while also improving the resiliency of our space constellations to guard against attack.
Interviewed by Nikkei senior taff writer Hiroyuki Akita