Thirty years ago, two members of the U.S. Congress had a good idea. Facing debilitating service rivalry, and an archaic military authority system, and shamed by two failed military operations attributed to the inability of the individual military services to play well together, two members of Congress — Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative William Nichols — are credited with turning the situation around. The resulting legislation, the Goldwater-Nichols Act, among other things compelled the U.S. military services to cooperate, a term which came to be known as “joint operations.”
One of the main drivers of this modernization, other than the need to be competent during the standoff with the Soviet Union, was the abject failures of the Iranian hostage rescue mission in 1980 and the then-fresh invasion of Grenada by U.S. forces in 1983. Both operations were plagued by interservice rivalry despite good intentions. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 set out to rectify this.
This brings us to Japan, long criticized for its lack of joint operational skill despite its extensive association with the U.S. military and the dangerous neighborhood (much more objectively dangerous than North America) in which it lies. Its joint track record is not good. Japan’s last major expeditionary military operations during World War II were infamous for their lack of jointness, as the Imperial Army and Navy often openly bickered about resources and campaign coordination, frequently leading to disastrous logistics failures and energy-consuming infighting. Inheriting this legacy, today’s undermanned, underpaid, and under-respected Self Defense Forces find themselves attempting to hold back an aggressive China, on perpetual ballistic missile alert, and fighting a never-ending internal battle to defend their shrinking budgetary shares. Japan’s services, even if they were interested in becoming more joint, can scarcely plan for the future, let alone think about joint operational reform.
Since the Japanese services seem incapable of joint reform independently, it is logical to conclude what the Self Defense Forces need most is the Japanese equivalent of a Goldwater-Nichols Act.
Under a pro-defense prime minister and a logical and dedicated defense minister, the time for such reform is now — but there is much to overcome first. Critics of postwar Japanese military thought, with some justice, point to institutional stove-piping, interservice rivalry, budgetary infighting, and outright strategic disinterest in joint thought as reasons why Japan has not yet become joint. Piling onto that, being joint is expensive: it means additional military headquarters that require staffs, revamping traditional authority, a new emphasis on military doctrine, and changes in education and training which all cost energy and time and, therefore, money.
But why should Japan be joint? Despite the clear advantages such improvement would add to the U.S.-Japan alliance, there’s no immediately obvious answer until one looks more closely at Japan’s nascent capabilities and its security situation. Japan will activate its long-awaited Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade sometime this March. The brigade is Japan’s first attempt at real amphibious operations in over 70 years. It goes without saying such operations would benefit greatly from joint operations; no soldier wishes to storm a beach without air cover, after all. Further, the RQ-4 Global Hawk, set for initial operations in the next few years, has been advertised by the Ministry of Defense as a joint unit from the ground up, which makes good sense considering its reconnaissance mission.
Further, the stakes for successful joint operations are higher than it first seems. There is no shortage of regional rivals to challenge Japanese territorial claims and slowly eat away at Japan’s borders by running the individual services ragged. It is not lost on Japan that the United States did this very thing to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s via aggressive defense spending and constantly testing Soviet readiness; jointness offers a way to pool resources to best prevent this from happening.
For a chronically underfunded Ministry of Defense, these resources are no small matter, and Japan’s biggest obstacle to reform has been itself. Japan continues to operate under an antiquated defense appropriations system called the Midterm Defense Plan, which ostensibly predicts and allocates funds for defense acquisitions for the next five years — an impossible job in the volatile Indo-Pacific defense environment. Like a shopping list, each service is given the amount of money procurements are thought to cost the moment the plan is signed, and are then told to go to the store. Once a defense appropriations plan is signed, all defense procurements become zero sum: as time marches on and exchange rates, security imperatives, negotiations with foreign suppliers, and defense priorities change, the services are forced to cut or cancel in favor of emergent priorities based on real-world requirements. This system can best be described as a peacetime procurement system poorly mismatched to the realities of the Indo-Pacific.
Additionally, this system practically forces the individual services to fight with each other not only for budgetary allocations but also for relevancy. That fight almost always ends up with the maritime forces as the clear monetary winner (culturally, Japan fiercely clings to an “island nation” mentality and the maritime forces face the brunt of dangerous situations abroad), the air service second, and the ground component, now without the Soviet threat, a distant third.
The good news is “jointness” is not a foreign concept in today’s Japan. For example, the primary military unit tasked with defending Japan from ballistic missiles, called Task Force BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense), is comprised of members from the maritime and air services. In short order the ground component will likely be a part of this BMD enterprise as it is expected to take charge of the soon-to-be introduced Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Japan has also established its first joint headquarters, the Japan Joint Staff in 2006, which built upon the previously-existing Joint Staff Council established in 1954.
While not yet capable of large-scale expeditionary operations, the Japanese military will eventually become so, and will have to get along with itself. It is safe to say sooner or later Japan will find a way to either amend its constitution or interpret it in a way that allows the state to execute military operations to address its security concerns. As history shows, an armed force’s efficiency — and survivability — is eminently tested abroad. Recent moves by Japanese forces to deploy to Iraq and to South Sudan, and to send officers to serve in an anti-piracy task force off the coast of Somalia are only toes in the water — while the operations demonstrate expeditionary capability, they are only just the beginning.
Thirty years after Goldwater-Nichols, the United States still struggles to achieve better jointness, but possesses real combat success owed to joint combat power that is measurable, verifiable, and most important of all, repeatable. Much of the old “service rivalry” which Goldwater and Nichols set out to remove is gone or relegated to the football field; caught up in budgetary squeezes and undernourished personnel rosters, a generation of commanders fed on joint have seen jointness as a way to multiply their forces and effectively unify their commands to better battle the enemy with faster and more powerful results. For all its faults, the U.S. military is in fact better for being more joint, and in the joint era has caused and suffered fewer military and civilian casualties, has minimized unnecessary damage compared to previous eras, and has achieved operational success during conflicts faster than in pre-joint eras. Anyone doubting this need only compare the aforementioned 1983 Grenada operation to the 2003 Iraq War (colloquially termed “Shock and Awe”) to see the difference an effective joint operation makes.
There is no reason why Japan could not forge this legacy for itself — or, if it prefers, it could keep the jointness it inherited from 1945.
Major John Wright is a U.S. Air Force officer, pilot, and a Mike and Maureen Mansfield Fellow. He is currently serving as Japan Country Director, International Affairs, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, Honolulu, HI. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and not those of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Government, Mansfield Foundation, or any foreign government.