The Japanese Self-Defence Force (SDF), and in particular the Ground Self-Defence Force (GSDF), has been making headlines in the past few months for its brave and relentless relief efforts in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake in March.
It’s unquestionable that as this tragic situation continues to unfold in Japan, one of the few bright spots has been the dramatic improvement in Japanese perceptions of the SDF. Unfortunately, these recent developments may also be overshadowing the struggles that have been taking place within the largest branch of Japan's military over the past several years.
Japan's unique constitutional constraints on the use of military force imply that, unlike the land-component of most nations’ armed forces, the GSDF was inherently defensive: its main mission is to protect Japanese territory from any external security threats. Yet with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the primary security threat that the GSDF was meant to deal with vanished, and no clear threat to Japanese territory has materialized since.
The main challenge that has emerged since the end of the Cold War is the build-up in Chinese naval capabilities, which has called for an increased role to be played by the Marine Self-Defence Forces (MSDF) and Air Self-Defence Forces (ASDF), and to a certain extent the Japan Coast Guard. Indeed, the Japanese government at one point considered the threat to Japanese soil so low that preparing for a threat to the homeland (aside from contested islands) had its importance downgraded as an objective for the SDF in 2004.
As a result, the GSDF has in many ways been the branch of the military most affected by Japan's implementation of fiscal austerity measures. The only personnel cuts that have occurred in the past 20 years have occurred in the GSDF, which was reduced from 154,000 personnel in 1996 to 148,000 in 2004, and more recently to 147,000 in 2010. The number of tanks and howitzers in the GSDF arsenal, as laid out by the National Defence Programme Guidelines (NDPG) published every several years, were ‘officially’ brought down from 900 to 400 each between 1996 and 2010.
But the GSDF has also been pushing back. Although there have been some personnel cuts, the GSDF remains over three times as large as either the MSDF or the ASDF. A defence policy official recently told me that the tentative plan to send 100 troops to Yonaguni– which is unlikely to have much operational or deterrent value – was in effect a result of GSDF officials fighting to stay relevant.
In addition, in a surprising development, procurement of tanks for the GSDF has actually increased in the most recent Mid-Term Defence Programme, to 100 over the 2011-2015 period, even though procurement in each of the previous two five-year periods was 68. Even more puzzling was that although the most recent defence policy document called for a reduction in the number of tanks to 600 in 2004 (which was further brought down to 400 in 2010), the actual number of tanks remained at 830, according to Japan’s Defence White Paper for 2010.
As budgetary constraints become tighter and maritime challenges amplify, it’s widely expected the GSDF will be hit more than most services in the coming years. But it’s also possible that the GSDF will keep using its bureaucratic clout to fight for its share of resources – a possibility that’s unlikely to serve much of a functional purpose, either for national security or disaster relief efforts.
Will the GSDF pushback effort work? Given the number of troops and the political support the force enjoys due to its bases, it’s likely it will enjoy moderate success if it follows such a path. Still, policymakers also have the option of being more proactive and demanding the reallocation of resources to match stated defence policy. This could entail reducing GSDF personnel, closing bases in Hokkaido that have waning in value for national security purposes and expanding those of the MSDF, which will likely be necessary as its submarine fleet grows from 16 to 22 vessels over the next few years. Such a shift also wouldn’t necessarily do any harm to SDF efforts to engage in disaster relief – the ASDF and MSDF together provided 36,000 of the 106,000 troops involved in relief efforts.
These are just a few ideas, and there’s much room for creative thinking regarding how best to hedge against regional security challenges.
The successful relief efforts of 70,000 GSDF troops to Tohoku will in all likelihood help buoy public support for the force, and thus buy some time for the defence establishment as it’s forced to make difficult decisions. Yet augmenting fiscal constraints make it imperative that defence policymakers begin planning now for a future with fewer resources allocated to the GSDF so that there’s some room left to build up key MSDF and ASDF capabilities.
Philippe de Koning is a Fulbright Fellow at Hiroshima University and a former participant on Pacific Forum CSIS's New Leaders Programme.