The Buzz

Japan's Military Has Some Serious Problems (As China's Military Gets Stronger)

In late August, the Japan Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) held its annual ‘Fuji Firepower Demonstration’ at a training area near Mt. Fuji.

During this event, the GSDF shoots off tons of ordnance and ammunition and puts its troops ‘into action’ with helicopters, tanks, and other hardware.

The impressively orchestrated performance draws tens of thousands of Japanese spectators – most apparently unaware they are observing what is, in effect, high-priced ‘kabuki’ that masks serious national defense shortfalls.

This year’s event simulated an ‘island re-taking’ scenario, an operation hard to replicate at a landlocked training area.  The GSDF always puts on a good show and the troops are professionals. But one might leave with the wrong impression; specifically, that the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) is a finely tuned force capable of defending Japan.

Instead, the event is a reminder that the JSDF is less than the sum of its parts, and it highlights a number of GSDF and JSDF shortcomings.   The Japanese Government (GOJ) needs to remedy these shortcomings, lest it find itself militarily impotent in the face of its powerful and belligerent Chinese neighbor.

In other words, GOJ must fix these problems or face probable strategic military defeat – perhaps without a shot being fired.

Key shortcomings follow:

GSDF’s Half-Hearted Effort Toward Amphibious Capability: 

The GSDF is building an amphibious capability in the form of an Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB).  China verbally and physically threatens Japan’s Southwest Islands, the Nansei Shoto, so Japan is taking the steps needed to counter this threat. However, the effort is a curious mix of the serious and the half-hearted.

A part of GSDF leadership resists the idea of a mobile, amphibious GSDF working jointly with the Maritime and Air Self Defense Forces to defend Japan’s southern islands from Chinese aggression.

Among some key JGSDF officers, nostalgia still lingers for GSDF’s historic emphasis on armored forces defending Hokkaido from a Russian invasion. This friction reportedly played a role in the forced, early retirement of the GSDF’s two leading reformers a year ago. Both officers are sorely missed.

The ARDB concept and the proposed structure are adequate, but there are serious doubts about the Japanese Navy and Air Force properly supporting the development of the amphibious brigade and its operations in Japan’s Southwest Islands.

JSDF ‘Jointness’ – A Long Way to Go: 

Although Fuji Firepower is a GSDF show, the ‘island retaking’ scenario warrants asking, “Could the GSDF do an ‘island re-taking’ – either for real or practice – working hand in glove with the Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) and the Air Self Defense Force (ASDF)?”

The answer:  “Not very well.”

This is because the GSDF, MSDF, and ASDF do not practice ‘jointness’; in fact, Japan’s ground, sea, and air forces generally resist working together.

This lack of ‘jointness’ remains the JSDF’s fundamental weakness.  It’s puzzling: everyone knows it’s a problem but nobody will do much about it.  Even more puzzling is that most JSDF officers attend the same military academy, but upon graduation become captives of their service culture and avoid cooperating as often as not.

The GSDF and MSDF have made some useful progress in the last few years, as manifested in the Dawn Blitz exercises off southern California and several other similar exercises. But more commitment is needed, as keen observers noted at the ‘island re-taking’ demo. The ASDF made an appearance at Mt. Fuji, with a F2 fighter showing up and ‘firing’ an imaginary anti-ship missile, but this token appearance should not be mistaken for ‘close air support’ or interest in either joint or amphibious operations.

Inter-Service Communications, Primitive at Best: 

Symptomatic of the JSDF’s inadequate ‘jointness’, electronic communications between the services remain a serious flaw. Indeed, it is probably just as well the ASDF and MSDF were mostly absent at the Fuji Fire Demonstration, as it would have been too hard to talk to each other.

This too is no secret, nor is it hard to solve. One was suggested, only half tongue in cheek, that the Minister of Defense send the three services’ top communications officers to a Tokyo electronics store with a credit card and orders to “fix things, or else!”: the problem could be solved in an afternoon.

Inadequate Defense Spending: 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s well-intentioned effort to increase defense spending has only resulted in illusory increases, more smoke-and-mirrors than substance.

Japan’s defense budget has been underfunded for decades and, among other serious shortfalls, that means inadequate funds for training. Indeed, one cringes watching GSDF shoot off so much ammunition at what is effectively a ‘PR’ exercise when they don’t have enough for ‘real’ training, and even the adequacy of ‘war stocks’ is questionable. Inadequate defense funding creates a readiness ‘death spiral’ of insufficient training time, inadequate aviation flight hours, lack of ability to fire assigned weapons, unrealistic field training, and critical personnel shortages.

And when funding is short, as it always is for the JSDF, the services are even less willing to cooperate with each other. Beneath a veneer of polished geniality, each views its rival services the same way hungry cannibals eye each other.

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