Rising Partners

Aug. 28, 2014

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, wants Japan to play a larger role in Asian security affairs. His recent modifications of the Japanese Constitution Article 9—paving the way for a more muscular status in “collective self-defense”—produced heavy controversy in Japan and the region, but received support from the US. It also signals a change in the part the US Air Force plays in the defense of Japan.

The Article 9 change was only one in a series of security-oriented shifts by Abe. He’s pushed to reform and modernize Japan’s self-defense forces, established a National Security Council, and in December 2013, he published the country’s first national security strategy.

On July 1, in a prime-time speech, Abe announced an end to the ban on collective self-defense, calling his new policy a defensive measure that would help protect the Japanese people at home and abroad. The expanded guidelines allow Japan to more easily participate in military exercises with countries other than its US treaty ally, come to the aid of ships of allies under attack on the high seas, and deploy forces to support United Nations peacekeeping operations.

The announcement was welcomed by the US. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the policy would help Japan engage in a “wider range of operations and make the US-Japan alliance even more effective.” The week after the announcement, Hagel hosted his Japanese counterpart, Itsunori Onodera, for talks at the Pentagon.

The rapid growth of China’s military power hasn’t dimmed regional memories of Japan’s 20th century occupations and barbarism, however, and China’s response to Abe was swift and sharp.

“We are opposed to Japan’s pursuit of its domestic political goal by deliberately making up the so-called ‘China threat,’?” a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry told reporters following the announcement, adding that Japan should respect the “security concerns” of its Asian neighbors.

South Korea, another vital US treaty ally in the region, expressed wariness about the change. Following the announcement, its Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it won’t tolerate any unilateral action from Japan “without the ROK’s [South Korea’s] request or consent on matters that can affect the security of the Korean Peninsula.” It called on Japan to provide transparency on the details of its new posture.

Abe’s Article 9 move follows a great deal of military-to-military and diplomatic activity between Japanese and US officials over the last three years, focused on improving interoperability, modernizing forces, and training for a wide range of military contingencies with the US and other Japanese allies. Just days before Abe’s high-profile speech, Japan Air Self-Defense Force personnel and aircraft returned from Alaska, where they participated in Red Flag-Alaska 14-2, alongside counterparts from Australia and observers from the Royal New Zealand Air Force. For the two-week June exercise, the JASDF deployed F-15J Eagles, an E-767 airborne warning and control jet aircraft, KC-767 tankers, and C-130Hs. Maj. Taro Murao, a JASDF F-15J pilot, said USAF’s Red Flag events are prime opportunities for developing Japanese air combat skills. “When we participate and cooperate with other nations, we learn not only a lot about them, but a lot about ourselves as well,” he said.

There has been great progress between the US and JASDF on information sharing, intelligence collaboration, and more integrated command and control activities.

In October 2013, the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee, known as the “2+2” was hosted for the first time in Tokyo. The US secretaries of State and Defense met with their Japanese counterparts. The joint statement released after the meeting announced a raft of new policy and military initiatives. These included the establishment of a joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance working group, agreement to expand joint use of Japanese military facilities, and agreement to deploy to Japan more modern aircraft. This includes the RQ-4 Global Hawk, which arrived for its first regular rotation at Misawa AB, Japan, in May.

The US Air Force has been substantially involved in these developments. USAF is heavily invested in facilities in Japan—and a large portion of Pacific Air Forces’ combat power is based there. Japan hosts three USAF installations, totaling about 13,000 airmen. An airman commands US Forces Japan—Lt. Gen. Salvatore A. “Sam” Angelella, who is on his fifth tour in the country.

Okinawa, Japan, was the first stop on USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III’s initial trip through the US Pacific Command area of responsibility as the top airman, in August 2013. After Kadena Air Base, he visited USAF officials at US Forces Japan headquarters at Yokota Air Base and the Japanese Ministry of Defense, where he met Onodera and other officials.

Welsh met the Chief of Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces Joint Staff, JASDF Gen. Shigeru Iwasaki—a career F-15J pilot—and the newly appointed JASDF commander, Gen. Harukazu Saitoh.

The JSDF Chairman and the JASDF Chief of Staff “repeated that they believe the relationship has grown stronger over the last two to three years,” Welsh told Air Force Magazine during his visit to Tokyo last year, after several days of high-level meetings.

The Japanese are pleased with the string of solid leaders at 5th Air Force and their operational collaboration, he added. Welsh said Iwasaki told him joint training was crucial to building on the alliance. “He talked about his belief that we have to get better together, more capable together, … [to] work on integrated command and control and things like integrated air and missile defense. And this is very consistent with what [US Forces Japan officials] have told me as well,” Welsh said.

Much of this progress bloomed in the aftermath of Operation Tomodachi, the Japanese and US response to the devastating March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The operation was unprecedented in the history of the US-Japan alliance and revealed shortcomings in the military relationship.

Tomodachi highlighted the need to institutionalize and improve command and control processes, logistics arrangements in humanitarian and disaster relief operations, and sort out authorities and relationships between PACOM, USFJ, and the JSDF.

In the wake of that experience, there’s been an expansion in multilateral cooperation and exercising, not just in traditional combat exercises but also in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief scenarios. These have taken place both in Japan and in other venues, such as Guam and Alaska.

Traditionally a bilateral exercise between Japan and US forces, Exercise Cope North on Guam recently included South Korea, which dispatched a C-130 to the humanitarian response portion of the most recent iteration in February. South Korea’s forces rarely train alongside JSDF troops, making the participation a significant event.

In January, USFJ and the JSDF conducted Keen Edge 14, a bilateral command post exercise that put various Japanese and US headquarters in Japan to the test, practicing responses to crises and contingency operations.

Mil-to-Mil Ties

“When I first took command of USFJ, I was challenged by [PACOM’s Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III] to make us more operational, with the idea of this exercise being kind of a test,” Angelella told Japanese reporters in February. “I can tell you that we passed that test,” he added, with US forces in Japan demonstrating that they are capable of supporting a wide range of missions alongside the Japanese.

The importance of command and control is stressed repeatedly by USAF, PACOM, and Japanese officials for the simple reason that US-Japan mil-to-mil ties are at the core of the so-called “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific.

It’s “why we continue to conduct exercises like Keen Edge. … It’s why our service components conduct a variety of exercise not only with Japan, but with other allies and partners as well,” Angelella said. The US also seeks to have the “newest and best equipment here in Japan,” he said in February, stressing the importance of modernizing both US forces in Japan and Japan’s own equipment. F-22s have long rotated to and from Kadena, he noted, and the F-35—in the form of the Marine Corps F-35B—will deploy to the Pacific first.

Welsh, after his visit with Japanese officials in August 2013, said he talked with them about Japan buying the F-35 and the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

“They are strongly committed to the F-35 and they are excited about the program,” Welsh said. However, he noted that new fighters have to be bought in balance with other needs, such as an affordable replacement for Japan’s aging E-2 airborne early warning aircraft.

Japan is figuring out how to accomplish its air modernization, deciding what “they can afford to upgrade, what they can’t, and what do they trade off in terms of modernization versus recapitalization,” Welsh said during his visit. “I was struck by how similar [their] problems are to our own.”

The JASDF is closely monitoring USAF’s deployment of the RQ-4 to Japan, having indicated Japan might buy up to three Global Hawks over the next five years.

Flying out of Misawa Air Base is proving to be a good move for sortie generation and coverage, said USAF Col. Dan Wolf, head of PACAF’s warfighter integration office at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. The Global Hawk can get airborne more frequently and has fewer weather-related delays flying from Misawa than from Andersen AFB, Guam. The JASDF is excited to have the capability operating from Misawa, Wolf added. “We view [the deployment] as an opportunity for future discussions with our JASDF partners.”

Air and missile defense is an area of growing cooperation and collaboration between USAF and the JASDF. These activities, particularly joint and bilateral training to coordinate antimissile batteries, radars, and data links between US and Japanese forces, are critical to preparing for regional stability and crisis operations, Wolf said. Representatives from all US military services and the JSDF met in Hawaii in February for a high-level integrated air and missile defense war game, which tested participants’ ability to collaborate in quickly evolving scenarios.

These drills aim to migrate from simply deconflicting IAMD assets and command and control, to integrating them. Much of Japan’s military gear is the same as that employed by the US. Leveraging that commonality is key to building alliance capabilities.

The US and Japan have worked to expand opportunities to train together, to build familiarity and interoperability. Last summer, USAF and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force units started collaborative training for suppression of enemy air defenses, or SEAD. The F-16 “Wild Weasels” of the 35th Fighter Wing at Misawa now train regularly in a simulated combat environment, to include live ordnance drops at a Pacific Ocean range. Previously, SEAD training was limited to just a few exercises a year, at Red Flag-level events, according to Misawa officials. Now, real missile sites simulate shooting at F-16s, paying dividends for both USAF pilots and Japanese missile defenders.

This close collaboration follows Japan’s 2013 national security strategy, which declares the country to be in a “severe security environment.” Threats include North Korea, tensions with Russia over the disputed Kuril Islands to the north, and tensions with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. It was around this area that China unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in November 2013.

The Abe government has called attention to regional discomfort with China’s military modernization and the ADIZ in particular. It charged in its new security strategy that China is attempting to “change the status quo by coercion” and infringe on the “freedom of overflight above the high seas” in and around Japan’s territorial waters.

Earlier this year, in a public announcement, China declared it would raise its defense budget by 12.2 percent—approximately $132 billion—in 2014. This marks another double-digit spending increase for its military, continuing a trend of nearly two decades. DOD, in its annual report on Chinese military capabilities, estimated China’s total military spending exceeded $145 billion last year, but “China’s poor accounting transparency” makes a solid number hard to determine. A significant category—excluded from official estimates, DOD noted—is purchases of foreign weapons and equipment.

Chinese leaders usually downplay these increases, suggesting their spending is dwarfed by larger world powers. China’s government also increasingly tries to draw Japan into a war of words. In an article announcing defense spending, Xinhua, the official Chinese news service, claimed that per capita defense spending is just 20 percent of Japan’s—though China boasts a population nine times larger.

“If one is to look seriously for a cause for alarm in Asia, one should fix a gaze on Tokyo,” according to Xinhua. It charged that the Abe government has “turned his administration into a regional troublemaker.”

USFJ senior leaders avoid discussing what US forces would or would not do if there were a skirmish or incident between Japanese and Chinese forces. As recently as last year, US officials claimed not to have developed detailed plans for such a scenario. (President Obama said in April, however, that the Senkaku Islands fall under the mutual defense treaty, as Japan administers the territory.)

However, PACAF and USFJ officials said they share air defense data to minimize the risk of miscalculation by any side. PACAF’s Wolf said the US and Japan share a common operational picture, and US forces stress they adhere to International Civil Aviation Organization standards when navigating disputed airspace.

“We encourage all countries involved to do so, so that we don’t take a situation where we are operating in that space and introduce unnecessary miscalculation,” Wolf said.

Over the last two years especially, intercepts by JASDF aircraft in and around the Senkaku and Ryuku islands have sharply increased. According to Japan Ministry of Defense figures released in March of this year, China has “rapidly intensified its activities surrounding Japan’s airspace, expanded its operational areas, and diversified its flight patterns,” even prior to the November 2013 ADIZ declaration.

Increasing Intercepts

Based on Japan MOD figures, the JASDF scrambled against Chinese aircraft fewer than 100 times in 2010, but in 2011, the number rose to 150—and in 2012 it doubled to more than 300.

During Welsh’s visit with USFJ officials at Yokota in August 2013, Angelella pointed out that that year was JASDF’s busiest ever for intercepts, and the trend showed no signs of abating. According to Japanese MOD reports, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force has flown a wide variety of aircraft around the Ryukus and the Senkakus, including Y-12 surveillance airplanes, H-6 bombers, and Y-8 airborne early warning aircraft.

The day China declared the East China Sea ADIZ, a Tu-154 signals intelligence aircraft and a Y-8 both flew around the Senkakus.

Russia-Japan tensions over the Kuril Islands—disputed since the end of World War II—remain unresolved. In April, the head of Russia’s Eastern Military District, Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, told Russian reporters more than 150 facilities in the Kurils will be built by 2016 to revamp military capability there. Russia also plans to deliver more than 120 more vehicles and special purpose equipment to garrisons on the islands in the next three years, Surovikin said.

Meanwhile, Russia’s military forces in the Far East have become “increasingly active,” PACAF’s Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle said in a May speech in Washington, D.C. Long-range bombers, such as Tu-95s and Tu-160s, have expanded flights in four regions—two of them the airspaces around Japan and off the Korean Peninsula. Flights near Japan and Korea are for varied purposes, he said, to include military demonstration but also intelligence gathering on joint exercises such as the US-South Korea Foal Eagle drills and US-Japanese training.

Press reports detailed one close encounter in April when a Russian Su-27 flew dangerously close to a RC-135U Combat Sent flying off Russia’s east coast, north of Japan. The Flanker turned its wing to brandish its missiles within 100 feet of the Combat Sent’s cockpit. DOD officials described the incident as “isolated,” but transmitted their objections to Russia.

While Japan’s collective security declaration dominated headlines in July, analysts haven’t found consensus on what it means for joint operations.

Ian E. Rinehart, a Congressional Research Service Asia analyst, discussing a potential Article 9 change in October of 2013, said it will have complex effects on US-Japan security cooperation. Changes in international security operations, for example, will depend on changes in laws and be constrained by Japanese public opinion.

Japan will seek to limit the exercise of collective security to scenarios that relate directly to its own national interests, Rinehart said at the time in a presentation at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C.

“We are encouraged from the transparency, and from the military perspective we see continued cooperation, especially in the bilateral structures that we have been working on,” Wolf said this past July.

Regarding information sharing between USAF and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, Welsh said the difference between 20 years ago and today is like “night and day.” The air forces of Japan and the US are not going to make decisions on their own about how to implement collective self-defense, but can suggest to their governments “what is possible … and figure out “where we can move forward, and where we can’t.” As the last several years have shown, other opportunities may emerge as time goes by.

“As we continue to grow this partnership, other things will become possible,” Welsh said.