Getting U.S.-Japanese Command and Control Right


Japan’s ambitious national security and defense strategies offer the opportunity to build a far more operationally effective and deeply integrated U.S.-Japanese alliance. As Japan moves to stand up its first Permanent Joint Operational Headquarters, the United States should act quickly to update its own command structure in Japan. Rather than wait for Japan to decide the details of the future headquarters — including its rank structure, role, and location — the United States should move now to establish a joint operational command element, based in Japan, to serve as its primary day-to-day U.S. interface. Acting now will give the United States the opportunity to shape Japanese choices. Otherwise, decisions made in Tokyo today will narrow Washington’s command structure options tomorrow. 

Tokyo Steps Up

Last December, Japan unveiled a new defense strategy that is unprecedented in its scope and ambition, reflecting deep concern over the deteriorating security environment in East Asia. Under the strategy, Japan plans to increase defense spending by more than 60 percent over the next five years, from ¥5.4 trillion (about $40 billion at today’s exchange rates) in Japan’s fiscal year 2022 to about ¥9 trillion ($66 billion) in fiscal year 2027. The effort is off to a fast start: The budget for Japan’s fiscal year 20223 alone is more than 25 percent higher than last year’s. The strategy includes plans for investments in advanced capabilities that Japan has not had before — including long-range precision strike and active cyber defense — as well as long-neglected areas like munition stocks, readiness and maintenance, and hardening of facilities. According to some estimates, by 2027 Japan could have the third-largest defense budget in the world, after the United States and China.



The strategy promises structural reforms as well, including the establishment of a permanent joint operational headquarters to “unify command” of the Ground, Maritime, and Air Self Defense Forces. No such dedicated operational command exists today in Japan. The existing Joint Staff Office, reorganized and nominally strengthened in 2006, provides both strategic-level command, advising the prime minister and the defense minister on military matters, and operational command of joint operations during wartime. Japanese defense officials have recognized the deficiencies of this system for some time. The unprecedented 2011 earthquake and tsunami accelerated the push toward greater jointness, and separating strategic and operational command, although in general the Self Defense Forces performed well during the crisis. Since then, Japan has placed an increased emphasis on strengthening jointness — the previous defense strategy in 2018 stated that the Self Defense Forces would “examine [a] future framework for joint operation[s]” — but the new defense strategy is the first time Japan has stated clearly the intent to establish a joint operational headquarters, separate from the Joint Staff Office. 

The Ministry of Defense will request funds to establish the Permanent Joint Headquarters in the next budget cycle, with the goal of launching the command by March 2025. But key details remain unresolved, including the rank of the officer assigned to lead it, the size of its permanent staff, and even its location (although it appears likely that the headquarters will at least initially be housed at the Defense Ministry in Ichigaya). These details are the source of intense bureaucratic infighting within Japan’s defense establishment, since Defense Ministry officials and leaders in the Ground, Maritime, and Air Self Defense Forces are seeking to protect their institutions and authorities. They have resisted the establishment of the headquarters in the past, and their buy-in will ultimately determine the effectiveness of the new command.

Washington Should Lean In

The United States has a deep interest in ensuring that Japan gets its new operational command right. Washington should therefore work to both shape the Permanent Joint Headquarters and take steps now to update its own command structure in Japan. Unlike Combined Forces Command in South Korea, the U.S.-Japanese alliance was never designed to “fight tonight,” and existing command-and-control arrangements reflect a bygone era. Throughout most of post-war history, Japan was generally viewed as a sanctuary and shield for U.S. forces, which provided the alliance’s spear — its true strike capabilities, operated solely by the United States.

The headquarters of U.S. Forces – Japan at Yokota Air Base is essentially a representational command today, designed to serve as a steward of the U.S. military presence in the country and to engage the Japanese government on issues related to basing under the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement. Despite the presence of nearly 50,000 military personnel in Japan, the command at U.S. Forces – Japan has no joint operational role. The commander, a three-star Air Force officer, commands the Fifth Air Force, which is headquartered at Yokota and reports to service headquarters in Hawaii and the Indo-Pacific Command. The Navy’s Seventh Fleet at Yokosuka, the Marine Corps’ Third Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, and the smaller U.S. Army elements all do the same. As a result, the Joint Staff Office’s counterparts today are Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii and the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.

This arrangement made sense during the Cold War, when Japan served primarily as a platform for U.S. military operations and few expected that Japan’s Self Defense Forces would be forced to take a leading role in a major contingency. But it makes no sense now, given the rapid evolution of the alliance, the advanced capabilities of the Self Defense Forces, and the critical role that Japan could play in a variety of contingencies. The prospect of a Japan with long-range precision strike capability — including the Tomahawk cruise missiles that Japan seeks to deploy on its ships by 2026 — lends particular urgency to this effort. For the first time, the United States and Japan will need the ability to coordinate strike operations in real time — including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting, and battle-damage assessment. At least at first, Japan will rely heavily on the U.S. “kill chain” architecture as it builds its own strike capabilities — doing so will require a far deeper level of alliance integration than exists today. 



As Japan transforms its defense establishment with a major buildup and a stronger focus on jointness, alliance command and control should transform as well. The United States should move now to establish an operational element in Japan as the day-to-day counterpart for the Permanent Joint Headquarters. As the summary report of a task force organized by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA recently concluded, “a reexamination of US-Japan command relationships is needed urgently.” A fully combined U.S.-Japanese command under a single commander (like the Combined Forces Command in South Korea) might ultimately be the most effective command structure, but it is neither legally nor politically possible for Japan at this time. Nonetheless, the U.S. element should have more robust and dedicated staff responsible for planning and coordinating bilateral military operations from peacetime through a major contingency. Such efforts are needed to better address both the defense of Japan as well as the broader set of regional missions. 

There are several principles to which Washington and Tokyo should adhere in order to maximize the effectiveness of the alliance’s new command elements. First, the U.S. operational headquarters should, like its Japanese counterpart, have a standing staff, lest it be forced to stand up amidst a major crisis or conflict. Second, the U.S. command should be joint, providing unity of command for managing the operations of the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Army, and Space Force elements. Third, to the degree possible the American and Japanese operational commands should be co-located, since cooperation in a major contingency would otherwise be impaired. These basic principles should govern decisions going forward as the U.S. government considers not only its own command structure, but also how it looks to shape Japan’s parallel arrangements.

Options for Updating U.S. Command Structures

In December, Congress mandated creation of a joint force headquarters in the Indo-Pacific under Section 1087 of the National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation requires submission of an implementation six months after enactment, which places it in late June. Congress required that the headquarters be established by Oct. 1, 2024, which gives officials just over a year to stand up this new structure. The new joint force headquarters could be established in Japan, with both defense of Japan and regional responsibilities — although the latter role could be politically sensitive in Japan and limit U.S. freedom of action. Leaders in Tokyo might be nervous about this broader operational role for a U.S. command in Japan, but both countries should plan now for how they would coordinate joint responses to a variety of contingencies.

But even if the new joint force headquarters mandated by Congress is located elsewhere in the region, like Guam, standing up a U.S. operational joint headquarters in Japan as a day-to-day counterpart to the Permanent Joint Headquarters is an essential next step in the alliance. Officials and experts have debated several general models for transforming the U.S. command structures in Japan: 

Indo-Pacific Command Forward. In this construct, the Indo-Pacific Command would forward-deploy a standing joint task force to Japan with a small permanent staff. Led by a flag officer, separate from U.S. Forces Japan, this element would report directly to the Indo-Pacific Command’s director of operations in Hawaii. The joint task force could be based at Yokota Air Base, to facilitate communication and coordination with U.S. Forces Japan. Alternatively, it might be located on the USS Blue Ridge, the flagship of the Seventh Fleet, which operates out of Yokosuka, Japan. This model would have the advantage of providing direct connectivity to the Indo-Pacific Command, but would function mainly as a liaison since it would struggle to serve a joint role in either location given that the Indo-Pacific Command staff and its component commands in Hawaii would remain the key decision-makers. It would also leave the existing U.S. Forces – Japan headquarters role unchanged, and create a parallel organization with separate functions, in effect resulting in two counterpart organizations for Japan, depending on the issue at hand.

Dual-Hat Component Commander. Under this construct, the United States would identify a component commander in Japan, presumably either the Seventh Fleet commander at Yokosuka or the Third Marine Expeditionary Force commander in Okinawa, as the U.S. joint operational counterpart for the Permanent Joint Operational Headquarters. Staff could be a mix of dedicated and dual-hatted component personnel. This approach would be the easiest to start, given that it could rely in part on personnel already on assignment in Japan. But a dual-hat construct would almost inevitably result in less focus on alliance operations, as U.S. unilateral activities would take priority for any component commander. Location would also be a challenge, as both Yokosuka and Okinawa are far from the headquarters, especially if it remains at Ichigaya.

Operationalize U.S. Forces – Japan. As noted earlier, the headquarters of U.S. Forces – Japan today has virtually no operational role in the alliance. This may have been acceptable in the past, but Japan’s growing operational role suggests a rethinking of this arrangement. The U.S. commander could be designated as lead of a revamped joint operational command subordinate to Indo-Pacific Command, with operational responsibilities to accompany the representational duties that exist today. U.S. Forces – Japan could be given the mandate of interfacing with Japan’s Permanent Joint Headquarters and built out accordingly. A flag officer could be designated deputy commander for operations, with equivalent rank to the existing deputy commander, a one-star Marine Corps general, who could continue the current role overseeing U.S. bases in Japan. The advantage of this approach is simplicity — it would centralize military-to-military engagement with Japan under a single roof at Yokota. At the same time, it would represent a significant evolution in the roles and responsibilities of U.S. Forces – Japan and would require a more robust staffing complement than exists today. 

As noted, each of these options has pluses and minuses. An Indo-Pacific Command forward model would have direct connectivity, but further confuse relationships by adding a parallel structure. A dual-hatted commander would be easiest to implement, but the second hat responsible for alliance operations would likely get short shrift. And building out U.S. Forces – Japan would centralize everything under one roof, but would require a significant revamp of the existing organization.

At the end of the day, operationalizing U.S. Forces – Japan would have a number of long-term advantages. An operationalized U.S. Forces – Japan could have a robust and joint standing staff. It could be co-located, at least in part, with Japan’s Permanent Joint Headquarters, if Washington engages now with Tokyo. Nonetheless, this approach would be bureaucratically difficult, and require fundamental changes to the command’s culture and staff. 

Time for a Change

Experts will debate which of these three options (or others) makes the most sense. But one thing is clear: The status quo is untenable. Japan is taking steps that are unprecedented in its post-war evolution, with investments in new capabilities that have the potential to make a substantial contribution to regional deterrence. But making use of these new capabilities requires new thinking about allied operational arrangements. Washington should not stand by while Japan decides how and where to stand up its Permanent Joint Headquarters, because these decisions will shape U.S. options for regional command-and-control arrangements. The time is now for leaders in the United States to engage with counterparts in Japan about the Permanent Joint Headquarters and the future of the U.S. command structure in Japan. As Japan steps up, the United States should lean in, ensuring that the allies have a shared vision for evolving their respective command structures in the years ahead.



Christopher B. Johnstone is Senior Adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served for 25 years in the U.S. government, including at the National Security Council under the Biden and Obama administrations and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Zack Cooper is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a partner with Armitage International. He also previously served in the National Security Council and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps Photo by GySgt Ismael Pena