World Naval Developments: Japan Rejects Missile Defense

By Norman Friedman, Author, The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems

The foreign policy argument is more interesting. China and North Korea have nuclear ballistic missiles. although their quality is unknown. Japan currently has no deterrent of its own, although the Japanese space program provides potential boosters for future warheads, and although it might be argued that the Japanese reactor program provides potential warhead material—in case some future government decides to pursue that path.

Too, the U.S. government has described its theater ballistic missile defense program as a means of protecting deployed U.S. troops abroad. If U.S. troops remain in Japan, the United States may find it necessary to deploy a ballistic missile defense whether or not the Japanese government buys one. In that case, Japan will receive a considerable degree of missile defense without paying any cost, either political or fiscal.

The Japanese view may well be that its primary foreign-policy interest is to retain U.S. forces in Asia. Without those forces in place, the enmities of the past may well become even more powerful than they are at present. China and both Koreas have reason to remember the sins committed by Imperial Japan before 1945. Indeed, in China the victory over Japan has long been used as a unifying force. As the political prestige of the Chinese Communist Party continues to fade, the World War II experience is likely to become more, rather than less, important. Much the same could be said of the relationship between the old Soviet Communist Party and the victory over Germany in 1945.

The Japanese calculation may be that building its own independent ballistic missile defense system would eliminate any dependence on the United States. The clear implication would be that Japan was preparing to return to its aggressive past. On the other hand, by making Japan in effect a hostage to Chinese and even Korean nuclear power, the Japanese government would be allaying any realistic fears that either old victim might entertain. Meanwhile, in the Japanese view, extensive investments in China and both Koreas will provide valuable leverage short of war.

The Japanese government has minimized Japanese aggression in mainland Asia before and during World War II, and Asian governments periodically protest new editions of standard Japanese history textbooks. Sometimes it seems that the official Japanese view of World War II is that there was some sort of ambiguous situation followed by the horrendous assault on Japan by evil Americans, culminating in the nuclear bombings. Indeed, it was the collision between this view and the usual American view that the Japanese were the aggressors which made the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibit so controversial (Smithsonian personnel seemed willing to accept and express the Japanese view, including the remarkable claim that Japan fought World War II to preserve its unique culture).

It seems unlikely that many Japanese officials think of the official view of their recent history as a cynical lie. They probably more or less accept what they have been taught. As a consequence, they may grossly underestimate the views of victims like the Chinese and Koreans. They may therefore imagine that, for example, Japan can solve any military problem in Asia by economic means.

There also is a financial, or rather a structural, element in any Japanese calculation. Japan's military budget ranks either first or a close second in Asia. The enormous amount of money, however, buys relatively little in the way of hardware or apparent military power. One important reason is that Japanese policy favors purchases from Japanese companies even though unit costs are extraordinarily high.

This policy can be read in two complementary ways. One is that it is corporate welfare; the Japanese government is bribing major corporations to retain an interest in defense despite the limitations of the home market and the prohibition against exports. Another is that the Japanese government badly wants to maintain a mobilization potential. Should policy change in favor of something more assertive, maintaining corporate capacity would be essential, since only home industry could be relied upon to support quick expansion. Both policies favor production, even when it might be argued that new production is not needed—hence, for example, the policy of replacing warships well before they have worn out or become obsolete.

From this point of view, any standing force requiring heavy operating expense is counterproductive. The overall size of the Japanese defense budget is set by the well-known agreement not to spend more than 1% of gross national product (Japan actually spends a good deal more if pensions and other costs are taken into account). A ballistic missile defense system is expensive to operate, it is impossible to deploy a limited system (as the Japanese often have done with other weapons) as a mobilization core.

As a result, the most important implication of any decision to deploy national ballistic missile defense would be a jump in spending beyond the 1% level. That has been exceeded in the past, but only by a small amount. A 30% to 40% increase would be something very different. Pacifists in Japan would read it as a return to militarism. Such an increase would be possible to finance, but the political implications of a major change in national policy would be difficult to handle.

For Americans, the question is the extent to which we can or should maintain a large military presence in Japan or, for that matter, in Korea. The U.S. posture in Asia has changed little with the end of the Cold War; sometimes, it is justified by fears that an aggressive China might attack Japan. The presence in South Korea is left over from the Korean War, which still lacks a formal peace settlement. Certainly, North Korea retains large military forces and often seems quite aggressive. The Cold War calculation was that any communist victory, for example in Korea, would have enormous and devastating implications. Hence, the United States played a vital role in Korea.

Now, there is no world communist enemy. U.S. policy favors the Beijing regime to the extent that almost any tilt toward Taiwan is avoided consciously. Russian forces in the Far East seem too limited to threaten anyone, at least at the non-nuclear level. There is little question, however, that the Gulf remains a vital U.S. interest, perhaps even more so than in the past.

Until this year, the United States followed, at least formally, a policy of maintaining sufficient forces to fight two simultaneous regional wars, one in the Gulf and one in Korea. Now there seems to be a consensus that such strength is unaffordable. The national strategy probably will accept a single regional war, and that war is likely to be the one in the Gulf.

It probably is time to reassess our posture in Asia, where the Cold War has frozen enmities for half a century. There never was any structure comparable to NATO, within which old enemies could gradually come to terms, partly because the two greatest enemies, Japan and China, were on opposite sides during the Cold War. Even within the Western camp, however, old enemies like Korea and Japan were never allied. Instead, security arrangements were all bilateral. The United States maintained the peace and, incidentally, avoided local arms races. We know that the major Asian powers would welcome continued U.S. presence, not least because we protect them from each other. However, those same powers cannot pay for the sort of presence they need. The severe squeeze on the U.S. budget surely will drive down the U.S. presence in East Asia, at least on land. Possibly sea-based forces will remain, since they are more flexible and are easier to redeploy in the event of a new Gulf War. The Japanese decision not to pay for a U.S.-supplied missile defense system may be an attempt, not so much to avoid expenditure, as to keep valued U.S. forces in Japan; after all, the U.S. forces may be a greater defense than anything Japan can deploy.

The situation in East Asia may be exacerbated further by a likely change in Russian defense policy. Russia currently has 1.5 million men under arms, but there is little money to pay them. The situation is not quite as bad as it appears, because many bases have their own farms; they can feed their personnel. There is little money, however, for training or production. The economy is so weak that announced authorizations rarely can be implemented. For example, it appears that no aircraft at all will be bought this year. At some point, perhaps within as few as five years, existing aircraft and even ships may no longer be operable. The old maintenance system depended on factories to rebuild major items of equipment at half-life, but the factories are gone (many of them are no longer in Russian hands).

The fiasco in Chechnya demonstrated the consequences of collapse. The military leadership in Moscow chose fully manned units for the Chechnyan operation. Unfortunately, most of them were manned by conscripts, who had received little or no training after induction. As it happened, the Russians also had units, well below strength, of Afghan veterans. Had they formed these units into ad hoc task forces, they might have done much better; but the military leadership in Moscow apparently had little idea of the relative military competence of the units available.

In February, one of a continuing series of private Russian analyses predicted chaos unless the military was cut to about a 300,000-man all-volunteer force. There was also the usual prediction of a nuclear disaster as protection of the nuclear stockpile collapsed. Without better financing, the military might easily turn into servants of the Russian mafia; it might also decide that a coup is its best guarantee of survival.

Just as the Cold War itself recalls a sort of slow-motion version of World War I, we might see the current state of the Russian military as an analog of what happened to the German military after 1918. In both cases, a state with limited resources had overspent on military power. In the German case, the weakly federated state was limited to customs revenue; it based its huge army and navy on loans, and hoped that enemies to be defeated would ultimately pay off the loans (in effect, the army and navy would be paying for themselves). In the Soviet case, the military eventually swallowed up the economy. It might be argued that both systems were headed for collapse, and that wartime failure merely accelerated the problem.

In the German case, it might be argued further that the hated Versailles settlement, which slashed the size of the armed forces, actually was beneficial in a military sense, since it released the country from an unacceptable economic burden while allowing the military to concentrate on modernization rather than on maintaining a bloated order of battle. In Russian case today, without foreign intervention, a vast order of battle is being maintained, and its cost is destroying important military capabilities. The cut to 300,000 or even to 100,000 men would not constitute surrender, but rather the beginning of some sort of supportable modernization. It is true, however, that by condemning large numbers of officers and men to unemployment, it might well reproduce another of the effects of Versailles: encouraging the formation of private armies such as the Freikorps. These armies ultimately put Adolf Hitler in power.

In the Far East, if the Russian army is indeed destined to collapse to a few hundred thousand men, then inescapably Russia will have to depend much more heavily on nuclear weapons for security at every level. In that case the Japanese may wish they had bought into a usable ballistic missile defense.

Of course, with the death of Deng Xiaoping, Chinese policy may change dramatically. In that sense, it seems significant that his death was announced when it was. It already is quite evident that the Chinese communist party is relying heavily on aggressive nationalism as a way of maintaining its power. 

 

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