How to Make Japan's Military Great Again

August 25, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: JapanSelf-Defense ForceChinaIndo-PacificU.S.-Japan Alliance

How to Make Japan's Military Great Again

Can the Self-Defense Forces’ (SDF) force level and structure sufficiently cope with the increased defense capability?

On December 15, 2017, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe delivered a speech at the Kyodo News managing editors’ meeting, covering various topics, which included his electoral victory, Abenomics, social security, North Korea and China. The highlight of his speech, however, was Abe’s announcement to revise the current National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) in 2018. The NDPG is a defense policy document which also guides the procurement plan entitled the Mid-Term Defense Program (MTDP) for the next five years.

In his speech, Abe emphasized his approach toward the revision by stating: “While maintaining our exclusively defense-oriented policy as a given, I intend to identify what defense capabilities we truly need to protect the people, rather than simply extending existing capabilities, facing head on the realities of the security situation surrounding Japan.” His words sounded promising, suggesting that a big change in security policy would be coming this year.

But the essential question left open in the last decade must be answered during this process of making the new NDPG. Can the Self-Defense Forces’ (SDF) force level and structure sufficiently cope with the increased defense capability?

Increase of the SDF Capability Based on the 2014 NDPG and MTDP

The current 2014 NDPG stresses the importance of enhancing the SDF’s deterrence and response capability in both quantity and quality. For example, the SDF prioritizes the development of capacities to ensure maritime supremacy and air superiority, which is a prerequisite for effective deterrence and response in various situations, including defense posture buildup in the southwestern region.

In order to achieve this goal, the 2014 NDPG and MTDP outline key measures as follows: (A) an increase in destroyers from forty-seven (including six Aegis-equipped destroyers) to fifty-four (including 8 Aegis-equipped ones); (B) an increase in submarines from sixteen to twenty-two; (C) an increase in air force fighters from 260 to 280; (D) an increase in one aerial and transport squadron to a total of three squadrons; and (E) the establishment of one amphibious rapid development brigade.

When the FY 2018 budget started in April, thirteen out of twenty-three procurement items listed in the current MTDP were completely budgeted, including five destroyers (two Aegis-equipped ones), five submarines, twenty-eight F-35A, and fifty-two amphibious vehicles. Japan has been making great progress toward the desired level of defense capability and the new 2018 NDPG and MTDP will update their efforts in December.

How About the Current SDF Force Level and Structure?

As of March 31, 2017, the actual total strength of the SDF personnel was 224,422, consisting of approximately 60 percent for the Ground SDF (GSDF), 19 percent for the Maritime SDF (MSDF), 19 percent for the Air SDF (ASDF), and 2 percent for the Joint Staff Council (JSC). For the staffing ratio (i.e., a ratio of actual personnel strength to the necessary personnel strength), the GSDF is at 90 percent, the MSDF is at 93 percent, the ASDF is at 92 percent, the JSC is at 91 percent, and the SDF as a whole is at 91 percent. Each branch is short-staffed but it appears to be sufficient for the time being. Then what are the problems?


One major problem has been an extreme shortage of enlisted (lower) rank personnel. For example, the enlisted (lower) rank personnel for the MSDF consists of seaman apprentice, seaman and leading seaman. While the staffing ratio of officer, warrant officer, and enlisted (upper) ranks is at 93-99 percent for the end of fiscal year 2017, the enlisted (lower) rank personnel is just at 69.5 percent. The ratio by branch is not clear, but simply speaking, each ground unit, each naval ship and submarine, and each squadron can only fill approximately 70 percent of the enlisted (lower) rank positions.

The SDF has been dealing with this problem for quite some time. According to the past annual defense white papers, the ratio has remained within the range of 69 percent to 76 percent during fiscal years 2008–17. A naval ship, for example, can be operational with a 70 percent staffing ratio. But it is important to note that the ship is designed to become fully operational with a 100 percent staffing ratio accommodating three-to-four crew rotations inside the ship, so naval forces remain fresh and can operate with full strength when necessary.


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Under the condition, the SDF is taking every effort to ensure that the armed forces remain highly operational and totally functional. Since 2008, the MSDF has participated in the international cooperation activities against piracy off the coast of Somalia, and one destroyer is still operating. According to the Diet minutes of May 19, 2011, when Japan dispatched two destroyers overseas, the MSDF made sure that these naval ships secured at least 90 percent of the staffing ratio. As a result, the staffing ratio for the remaining naval assets decreased to the level of 70-80 percent. This meant that crews on the ships operating near the Japanese homeland got shorter rest and a longer work load.

The Recent Increase of Defense Capability Further Exacerbates the Staffing Ratio

Since 2015, the MSDF has commissioned two Izumo-class helicopter destroyers (Complement: 470 for each), one Asahi-class destroyer (Complement: 230), and four Soryu-class submarines (Complement: sixty-five for each). Roughly, 1430 MSDF personnel are needed for these commissions. Off course, careful analysis should be conducted by considering other factors such as the number of decommissioned assets. But the size of a newly commissioned ship tends to become larger than that of decommissioned one. For example, an Izumo-class helicopter destroyer (Complement: 470) replaced a Shirane-class helicopter destroyer (Complement: 350), and required additional 120 crews.

Moreover, it should be noted that the following destroyers and submarines will be commissioned in 2019 and have already been budgeted: two Maya-class Aegis equipped destroyers (Complement: three hundred for each), two new 30DX surface combatant vessels (Complement: 100 for each), and three Soryu-class submarines (Complement: sixty-five for each). Approximately, 995 MSDF personnel will be required for these commissions.

Has the level of actual MSDF personnel increased since 2014? The defense white papers show, not at all. While the number was 42,209 as of March 31, 2015, the number slightly decreased to 42,136 as of March 31, 2017. The question remains, can Japan really keep the MSDF and the SDF as a whole, operational?

Massive Demographic Decline Is Approaching

Since 2012, the SDF as a whole has annually hired approximately fourteen thousand personnel on average while approximately ten thousand have retired or finished their terms and an estimated four thousand have left before their retirement annually. In the end, the total strength of the SDF personnel has remained at the level of 224,000 to 227,000. However, due to the recent economic recovery, as well as the declining birthrate and popularization of higher education, the environment surrounding the recruitment of SDF personnel is very severe. For the fiscal year 2017, the SDF planned to hire the enlisted (lower) rank male candidate of 5,400 for the GSDF, 1,100 for the MSDF, and 1,660 for the ASDF, but the SDF could only hire 80 percent, 60 percent, and 80 percent for each branch respectively.

Furthermore, the massive demographic decline is surely coming and this structural factor will ever worsen the current recruitment problem. Within the last few years, experts have already pointed out that Japan is entering into a super-aging and declining population society. The population eligible to join the SDF (eighteen to twenty-six years old) peaked at approximately seventeen million in 1994. In the FY2016, this age group dropped by six million (i.e., over 35 percent). By 2030, the eligible population will fall to approximately nine million.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense has so far promoted various measures to include the increase of recruiting females (6.1 percent of the total number of SDF personnel in the fiscal year 2016) and has planned to extend the eligible age to thirty-two-years-old this October. But Japan may also need to consider the extension of retirement age, the expansion of rehiring former SDF personnel, and the further promotion of employing female SDF personnel.

Japan Needs to Rebalance the SDF Manpower Now

What can Japan do to narrow the current and future gap between the SDF manpower and its increased and desirable defense capability? Recently Sweden reintroduced the conscription due to the growing Russian threat. Can Japan do so as well? The answer is no, they cannot because it is currently considered “unconstitutional.” Article 18 of the Japanese Constitution states, “No person shall be held in bondage of any kind. Involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime, is prohibited,” and the current governmental interpretation is that the conscription is an “involuntary servitude.” Prime Minister Abe also confirmed this legal position during the Diet debates in March 2016.

How about new technologies? For national security under the super-aging and declining population society, Japan needs to research and develop various types of unmanned vehicles. The Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA) released the Defense Technology Strategy in August 2016, and envisioned this direction for the next two decades. According to the Fiscal Year 2016 Medium- to Long-Term Technology Outlook, the ATLA has raised the following items as future potential equipment: unmanned surface vehicles (USV) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) that can be undertaken for more than one month, and UUVs that can carry anti-ship missiles and torpedoes. The U.S. has also been researching and developing these technologies, and it could be a great opportunity for U.S.-Japan cooperation, in these areas.