Is Japan’s New Defense Plan Ambitious Enough?

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan may have the clearest strategic vision of any world leader facing China today. In his first National Security Strategy document, issued in 2013, he outlined an approach based on external balancing in the form of a closer U.S.-Japanese alliance and expanded outreach to like-minded states across the region, particularly India and Australia. In 2014, he compelled President Xi Jinping to agree to a meeting without conceding to Xi’s demands that Japan acknowledge there is a dispute over the Senkaku Islands. He turned the corner with China this year in a visit to Beijing in October, during which the Chinese side agreed to Japanese terms for international standards of transparency in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Abe has also taken major steps to enhance Japan’s own capabilities in terms of internal balancing, revising the interpretation of Article Nine of Japan’s constitution to expand the ability of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to operate jointly with U.S. or other maritime democracies.

The next big step in Abe’s grand strategy will be the revision of Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines later this month. This is a 10-year defense policy document that will connect Japan’s National Security Strategy to a new Mid-Term Defense Plan that lays out the capabilities needed to meet the goals outlined in the National Defense Program Guidelines. The last Mid-Term Defense Plan was in 2013, but a revision is necessary because of the increasingly complex security environment surrounding Japan. The changes envisioned for the two documents, however, may be too cautious given the nature of these security challenges facing Japan and a number of domestic challenges that increasingly constrain the parameters within which Tokyo can act. Below, we lay out the external and domestic challenges and posit four possible enhancements that might address them.

External Challenges

Despite Abe’s successful recalibration of Japanese strategy since 2013, the security environment continues to deteriorate around Japan. From Japan’s perspective, the primary concern remains China’s rapid military build-up. Coupled with its constant gray-zone provocations, mostly in the maritime realm but increasingly in other realms as well, Beijing increasingly looks willing to employ coercive measures to advance its interests, change the status quo, and gradually shift the strategic playing field in its favor. Additionally, despite the flurry of diplomacy, Japan remains concerned about North Korea. North Korea’s growing arsenal of medium- to long-range missiles, to include intercontintental ballistic missiles, ensure that all of Japan remains in range of attack. And with a demonstrated nuclear capability, as well as an unknown arsenal of other weapons of mass destruction, Japan fears that any onset of provocations on the peninsula could lead to destruction in Japan on a level not seen since August 1945. While Russia is still seen as a major global actor, Japan does not view Russia as a primary security threat, although it finds it necessary to observe its activities in the Russian Far East.

Domestic Challenges

Japan is beset by a number of domestic challenges that constrain its ability to address its external challenges. One of the most publicized is its struggle with demographic decline. Statistics from Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications show that Japan’s population in 2016 stood at 126.9 million. Due to low birthrates, over the coming decades, this is set to plummet. In 2025, it will drop to 122.5 million. By 2045, it will drop to 106.4 million. By 2055, it will drop below 100 million to 97.4 million. This declining birth  rate directly affects the Self-Defense Forces. For many years, the overarching trend has been one of a steady decline in recruitment. Despite defense budgets increasing for the past several years, recruitment has struggled. The Self-Defense Forces have not been able to hit recruitment targets since 2014. In 2017, for example, recruiters only achieved 79.9 percent of their target.

Alongside declining recruitment, Japan also faces resource constraints that are expected to grow. Japan’s defense budget for the current fiscal year stands at $44 billion (4.9 trillion yen). Despite Japan’s relatively large defense budget, its defense spending is artificially capped at 1 percent of its gross domestic product. This is a product of a political decision made by the Miki Takeo administration in 1976 to show restraint in Japan’s defense policy. With the exception of a few years during the late 1980s, Japan’s defense spending has hovered below this artificial cap. When Japan’s economy was growing rapidly, this did not matter much because a budget capped at 1 percent still grew annually. This is no longer the case, and has not been the case for some time. As long as this artificial political cap remains in place, it constrains the amount of resources Japan can dedicate to the types of capabilities it seeks to meet its external security challenges.

On top of declining recruitment and constrained resources, the Self-Defense Forces continue to struggle to operate in a unified manner. Take the creation of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s  Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade as an example. Success in an amphibious operation will require all three services to work jointly. Yet, a recent study by the RAND Corporation argues that some of the more challenging aspects of bringing Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to the point of mastering amphibious operations have to do with overcoming deeply entrenched service cultures, identities, and mission prioritizations to ensure sufficient attention to joint training, developing strategy and doctrine, and ensuring the software connectivity to enable all three services to work together seamlessly as one integrated force.

These challenges intensify as Japan looks to new domains and increasingly technologically savvy competitors. At the opening session of deliberations on the National Defense Program GuidelinesAbe indicated that Japan would no longer be able to fully defend itself if it sticks to old paradigms of relying on traditional land, sea, and air forces. Yet, when looking at Japan’s current efforts on cyber and outer space, these areas are not only mired by the lack of jointness with which the three traditional services continue to struggle, they also remain complicated by interagency coordination processes and a lack of resources. While Japan has made strides in recent years to address these new domains, cyber in particular remains an area of vulnerability for not only Japan, but for bilateral cooperation with the United States. There are only a few hundred people total, for example, in the Self-Defense Forces who are dedicated to protecting the computer networks of the force. And in the Ministry of Defense’s Cyber Defense Group, there are only 150 people.

Cognizant that Japan must meet these security challenges, Abe has stated: “While maintaining (Japan’s) exclusive defense-orientation as a given…rather than extending what we are currently doing, I think we should identify the defense capabilities we truly need to protect the people.” Understanding the external and internal challenges facing Japan, there are a number of possible enhancements that decision-makers deliberating the next National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Plan could pursue that could benefit Japan’s defense and address these challenges.

Possible Enhancements

The first possible enhancement relates to possible means by which to overcome the shortage of personnel. With Japan’s birthrate continuing to fall, the Self-Defense Forces will continue to encounter problems with recruitment. For Japan to deter or defend against against a numerically advantaged-China, it will simply not be possible to rely on increases in manpower. One option is to increase the age limit at which to accept new members and cadets. Japan did so in October, lifting the maximum age for new recruits from 26 to 32 years old. Another option is to recruit more women, which is also being considered. These are not long-term fixes, however, as continuing falling birthrates mean the Self-Defense Forces will seek recruits from an increasingly shrinking pool. A healthier economy, with higher paying jobs, shrinks this pool even more. This will pose a big problem in getting capable people to man the ships, fly the aircraft, drive the vehicles, and perform the necessary maintenance to keep all the Self-Defense Force equipment running.

Therefore, within this enhancement there are two possible options for Japan. One is to rely on multi-domain, unmanned systems that require fewer human operators. Whether it be the current arsenal of submarines, destroyers, or fighter aircraft, or potential future capabilities, such as aircraft carriers or F-35Bs, the Self-Defense Forces require a lot of manpower to function. In Aug. 2016, the Ministry of Defense’s Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency released its Defense Technology Strategy that looked out 20 years. It highlighted the need for Japan to consider unmanned underwater vehicles that are armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes and unmanned surface vehicles. Given the nature of threats Japan faces from China, Japan might consider not only making bold moves into these domains, but also developing armed unmanned aerial vehicles as well. Stationing these assets on some of Japan’s southwest islands would provide an added benefit of expanding the Self-Defense Forces’  footprint in the East China Sea, which is largely devoid of Self-Defense Force presence.

A second option within this enhancement, but not mutually exclusive from the first, could be to recalibrate the existing force to make better use of its finite manpower. Japan’s National Security Strategy and numerous defense-related documents stress the rising threat Japan faces from Chinese air and maritime assets to its southwest and from North Korean missiles from the north. Gone are concerns of imminent land invasions from the Russians to the north. Yet, the current composition of the Self-Defense Forces heavily privileges the Ground Self-Defense Force, unchanged since the Cold War. According to Japan’s 2018 Defense White Paper, the total strength of the Self-Defense Forces stands at 226,789 personnel. Of this, 138,126 are from the Ground Self-Defense Force, or 60.9 percent of the entire forces. The other two services stand at 42,289, or 18.6 percent, for the Maritime Self-Defense Forces and 42,785, or 18.9 percent, for the Air Self-Defense Forces. The Joint Staff Office, the smallest, is composed of only 3,589 people, or 1.6 percent.

Recalibrating away from a heavy ground presence designed originally to counter Soviet aggression to one tailored to the new threats posed by China might be in order. Specifically, capabilities designed to counter aggression from Chinese missile, air, and navy forces makes sense so that Japan can make the most efficient use of its forces. This will likely require some rebalancing of forces and investments within and across the services. Since recalibration will likely elicit strong opposition from the Ground Self-Defense Force, in the short- to medium-term, it could make sense for the Self-Defense Forces to both move toward more joint bases across the country and allow service personnel to work across the three branches where possible. And like missile defense, as Japan moves toward missions that require greater service-cooperation, these cross-servicing billets could include cyber, space, and electronic warfare; amphibious operations; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

A second enhancement to deal with Japan’s challenges could be finding ways to better leverage its existing forces to deploy them as effectively as possible. The current National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Plan aim to enhance the Self-Defense Forces’ deterrence and response capabilities largely by building up existing capabilities of each individual service and, to a lesser extent, on developing new ones. Missing is a focus on greater integration of the three services into one unified force. Therefore, one possible means by which to ensure the three services can cooperate seamlessly to tackle the changing operational challenges is through more jointness. While the merits of Japan acquiring amphibious capabilities is open for debate, the creation of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade demonstrates that jointness is not going to occur naturally. As such, a possible first step worth considering is the creation of a joint operational command. As argued in a recent report led by Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, and in a separate CSIS report on Australia’s Joint Operations Command, the creation of such a command would have the responsibility for all military operations, as well as training and readiness of the force. This would help ensure maintenance and readiness of the Self-Defense Forces as a whole to conduct the types of operations it is expected to perform against the threats identified by Japan. And considering that Japan is also facing off against Chinese paramilitary forces, any means to get better unity of effort among the Self-Defense Force services, and then with the Japan Coast Guard, will strengthen Japan’s ability to respond to gray-zone contingencies.

In addition to making the traditional services work better together, a third enhancement that could address some of Japan’s current challenges would be to dedicate more focus on the new domains of cyber and space, as it happening in most modern armed forces. More resources, both financial and manpower, would be necessary were Japan to take this approach. For example, despite the rising awareness of cyber vulnerabilities, the Ministry of Defense is only seeking an increase in 70 people dedicated to cyber in the next fiscal year’s budget request. Looking further ahead, and mirroring the push for jointness, Japan could also seek to ensure that its efforts across the government are integrated into a unified effort. And to ensure better cooperation with the United States, the Japanese entity given oversight of these efforts should ensure it has robust connectivity to its U.S. counterpart, much like Japan’s National Security Secretariat does with the U.S. National Security Council. These efforts would help enhance Japan’s ability to oversee, assess, apprehend, analyze, and internationally coordinate on cyber activity.

A final enhancement that could benefit Japan’s defense is to break the artifically capped defense spending limitations. Should Japan need more resources for the capabilities it seeks, it would need more money. In addition to Japan’s decision to acquire new ballistic missile interceptors and two Aegis Ashore units, Japan is currently procuring, or planning to procure, several expensive capabilities. These includes F-35As, Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, Amphibious Assault Vehicles, C-2 transport aircraft, P-2 maritime patrol aircraft, KC-46A refueling and transport aircraft, V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, and new ballistic classes of submarines and destroyers. On top of that, there are numerous reports that Japan is looking to acquire other expensive capabilities, including another — as of yet undecided — fifth-generation strike fighter, the EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, hypersonic weapons, transport ships to be operated by the Ground Self-Defense Force, and aircraft carriers derived from retrofitted helicopter destroyers. These are all expensive capabilities. Yet, personnel costs are not expected to decline, as the number of Self-Defense Force pensions continue to increase. Nor are maintenance costs, given the growing number of capabilities in the force. And given the security challenges facing Japan, it will likely continue to pursue these programs.

But to do so, the budget needs to grow. Therefore, if Japan is commited to increasing its capabilities, it has little choice but to not only break the 1 percent barrier, but also to move well beyond it. While the decision on spending is Japan’s alone, given Japan’s wealth and its standing as a major global player and U.S. ally, one possible option would be to aim for spending 2 percent of its GDP, the same as that of NATO member states.


Under Abe, Japan has significantly increased capabilities to meet the increasing regional security challenges. Abe is also increasing the risk Japan accepts by becoming more joint with the United States and being willing to exercise collective self-defense with those with whom it has close security relations. Throughout the Cold War and early post-Cold War years, Japanese leaders studiously avoided becoming “entrapped” in American wars by using Article Nine of the constitution as an alibi. Abe has thrown that “get-out-of-jail” free card back into the box and is clearly more willing to operate jointly with the United States in the event of contingencies in the region — an important deterrent against Chinese or North Korean aggression. But Japan may need to do more. Not because the current alliance with the United States is somehow unfair, but because the challenges require it.


Michael J. Green is the Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Jeffrey W. Hornung is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Image: Japan Ground Self-Defense Force