Japan's response to new U.S. defense strategy: "Welcome, but ..."

March 09, 2012
By YOICHI KATO, National Security Correspondent Asahi Shimbun

The Japanese government welcomes the recently released new U.S. defense strategy because it rebalances the strategic focus toward the Asia-Pacific region. But the other focus of this new strategy--the so-called anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) capabilities of China which, the United States fears, could jeopardize its forward presence and freedom of action in the Western Pacific--does not get as much attention from Japan.

The new defense strategic guidance, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense," has quickly gained currency in policy discussions in Japan after it was rolled out on Jan. 5. Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka has repeatedly mentioned in the Diet that Tokyo welcomed it. He explained, for example, on Jan. 31: "I understand that it indicates the United States attaches more importance to the Asia-Pacific region and enhances its regional presence. I believe it will be a significant contribution to the peace and security in this region."

But the other main pillar of this new strategy, which is to maintain the credibility of U.S. power projection capabilities in the face of the rapidly growing A2/AD threat, is seldom talked about in Japan.

The recent development of an anti-ship ballistic missile by China, which is called "aircraft carrier killer" or "game changer," draws special attention in the United States as a new weapon system that could drastically enhance China's A2/AD capabilities.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba is the only sitting Cabinet minister in Japan who openly mentions "A2/AD." He told a news conference on Feb. 8, when he announced the agreement with the U.S. government to delink the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa from the rest of the base realignment package, "The deterrence could arguably be enhanced, because, for example, the entire Asia-Pacific region could work together to deal with A2/AD challenges."

He stopped short of describing A2/AD as potential threats to Japan, much less discussing Japan's strategy to counter such military capabilities.

But this is more than his personal judgment. It seems to be an institutional attitude on the part of Tokyo, if not a conscious decision.

Japan's highest-level defense strategy, "National Defense Program Guidelines (NPDG) for FY 2011 and Beyond," does not contain any reference to A2/AD. Nor does the midterm defense program for FY 2011 to 2015.

Both documents also do not refer to Air-Sea Battle (ASB), an operational concept that the U.S. Air Force and Navy have been developing to counter A2/AD challenges by integrating their capabilities in an unprecedented way.

The NPDG characterizes the emerging main security challenge for Japan as "gray zone disputes," which are confrontations over territory or economic interests and do not by nature escalate into wars. It advocates the build-up of a "dynamic defense force" to deal with them. Although China is referred to as "concern for the region and global community," and a deployment shift of Japan's Self-Defense Forces to "the southwestern region" is discussed, China's A2/AD capabilities are not clearly perceived as the major security challenge to Japan.

It is not that Japan is turning a blind eye to China's growing military capabilities, but the way to perceive such new capabilities as challenges to operational access is not widely shared. That is because Japan is located in the area where the United States says access could be denied in times of contingency.

One of the generals in Japan's SDF explains: "It is an American way of looking at the challenge. We are already here in Japan and have to fight to defend the country no matter what."

This marks a stark contrast with the U.S. strategic guidance, which highlights "Project Power Despite Anti-Access/Area Denial Challenges" as one of the main missions for U.S. armed forces. It even names China and Iran as states that "will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities."

Since the United States is trying to reshape its joint force by 2020 and expects friends and allies like Japan to play a larger role, this perception gap regarding A2/AD could present a serious challenge if both countries are to converge their defense strategy.


Although Japan does not necessarily share the threat perception of A2/AD with the United States, Japan has been paying an enormous amount of attention to the development of the Air-Sea Battle concept. It has reached the extent that some in the U.S. military point out, "Japan makes too much out of ASB."

ASB first grabbed the attention of Japan's defense community when it made a humble debut in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of the United States in February 2010. The reference to "anti-access and area denial capabilities" in QDR was nothing new--but ASB was.

It was only one paragraph long and simply explained that the Air Force and Navy were developing "a new joint air-sea battle concept" to defeat adversaries equipped with "sophisticated A2/AD capabilities" and to develop "future capabilities needed for effective power projection operations." Since this was the first instance in which the United States discusses the actual ways and means of dealing with this challenge, many of Japan's strategists thought this "joint air-sea battle concept" might change the U.S. strategy and military posture from the bottom up. It was quoted in Japan's annual defense white paper "Defense of Japan 2011."

But a long silence followed the ASB's debut in QDR. The next official words came more than a year later. In November 2011, the U.S. Defense Department (DOD) announced the stand up of the ASB Office and that the development of this concept would now enter the implementation phase.

The concept statement was completed, they said, but has not been released to this day. Even the government-to-government level briefing lagged behind. This lack of clarity left Japan confused and frustrated.

The defense strategic guidance, which was released by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Jan. 5 with the rare presence of President Barak Obama on his side in the Pentagon briefing room, did not have a reference to ASB at all. The SDF took an immediate notice of it. The DOD's explanation was "ASB is not a strategy."

Twelve days later came the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC). It is a vision of the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, on how a U.S. joint force can secure operational access under the A2/AD environment. In this document, ASB was mentioned but stripped of "joint" from its name and described as "a limited operational concept" along with others, such as "entry operations" and "littoral operations."

The word "joint" carries a special, powerful meaning in the U.S. military. According to Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, "(It) connotes activities, operations, organizations, etc., in which elements of two or more Military Departments participate." According to the definition, "the Air-Sea Battle concept" is nothing but "joint" by nature. Then why these changes?

Some in the U.S. defense community speculated that these changes were indications of a "downgrading" of the ASB concept as a result of inter-service turf battle between Air Force/Navy vs. Army/Marine Corps.

China Daily reported right after the rollouts of these two documents as follows: "In order to adapt to the new situation and further cut military spending, the U.S. has abandoned the Air-Sea Battle concept for now."

Rear Adm. John Miller, special assistant to the deputy chief of naval operations for strategy, policy and operations, clarified the situation in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

He explained, "What it (the strategic guidance) did say was A2/AD and that is what ultimately ASB concept is about." He also said, "ASB was never intended to be 'joint,' therefore it is not downgraded."

In addition to these changes in wording, the magnitude of the historic defense spending cut in the United States added to the uncertainty surrounding the future of this new operational concept. In Japan at one point, some government officials were actively discussing if this concept was dead or still alive.

Japan and the rest of the region had to wait until a magazine essay by both Gen. Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, was published on Feb. 20 to feel the strong pulse of this concept again and learn some more specifics.

The essay also revealed the strong sense of crisis on the part of the U.S. military leadership as indicated in the following passage: "If America appears unable or unwilling to counter an adversary's anti-access military capabilities, its friends and allies may find U.S. security assurances less credible, leading some of them to seek accommodation with aggressors or alternate means of self-defense, including weapons of mass destruction."


Toshimi Kitazawa, who was defense minister of Japan when the current NDPG was rolled out in 2010, explained the reason why the ASB concept was not included: "There has not been anything concrete made yet."

Within the Japanese government there was also a sense of hesitation to make China an enemy by signing off on this new operational concept at such an early and premature stage.

But now that the U.S. administration has virtually declared that the A2/AD is the primary challenge to the U.S. power projection capabilities and that the ASB concept would be implemented to counter such a challenge, there is not much room left for Japan to hold off its decision.

Both governments have just started negotiations to work out a new agreement on base realignment in Japan. They will also talk on the more fundamental topics of "deepening the alliance" to go through this time of strategic transition.

Back in 2010, one of the top defense strategists in Tokyo indicated that the absence of A2/AD and ASB in NDPG did not matter too much because what Japan would and could do were apparent regardless of this U.S. new concept, he said.

He listed the following: (1) hardening of existing bases; (2) enhancing anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities; and also (3) ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities. It is true that some of the A2/AD challenges can be dealt with by these three initiatives. They do not, however, address the newer additions, such as cyber- and space attacks.

Another Japanese government official points out that Japan now has finally become a "front-line state" in its true sense, facing the challenges directly from China across the East China Sea and being in an area where the operational access of U.S. forces could be limited or even denied. That makes it necessary for Japan to come up with its own "front-line state defense strategy" beyond just jumping on the bandwagon of U.S. regional strategy.

Japan can no longer avoid discussions about the A2/AD challenges both within the country and with its only treaty ally, the United States. What is questioned, however, is not just Japan's response to the Air-Sea Battle concept, but more fundamentally Japan's comprehensive strategy toward China.

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