US and Japanese ships are pictured docked at a harbor during a joint naval exercise. The Japanese ground and air forces have much less such cooperation with their US allies – or with each other. Photo: AFP / Arun Sankar

Later this year, the Donald Trump administration will attempt to squeeze blood out of a turnip – or in other words hit Tokyo for more money to defray the cost of US troops in Japan.

Japan currently pays the Americans about US$2 billion a year under the so-called Special Measures Agreement (SMS). The SMA is up for review and Trump has reportedly instructed his people to demand $8 billion.

A price of $8 billion for protection by the world’s most powerful military would represent a bargain. Indeed, call up Lloyds of London and ask for an insurance policy giving the sort of coverage the Americans currently provide. 

It might require an up-front outlay from Japan of nearly $100 billion, and a doubling of Japanese defense spending from about $50 billion to $100 annually for the foreseeable future. 

Tokyo doesn’t want to pay even five cents more for the Americans and reckons even $2 billion is too much. Negotiations will be acrimonious. The Americans will get nowhere near $6 billion more and the ill will on both sides will be long-lasting.

But perhaps this train wreck is avoidable?

Few people remember that the idea of “host nation support” for US forces originated some years back from the US side. 

Timorous American officials decided it was better to ask Japan to chip in money (and be perceived as money-grubbing mercenaries) rather than asking Japan to improve Japan Self Defense Force capabilities. The Americans wanted to avoid provoking the Chinese.

Washington was wrong on all counts. Both sides complain about money, the JSDF can’t fight very well and the Chinese are as angry as ever.  

So here’s an idea:  Abolish the Special Measures Agreement. America doesn’t need another $6 billion from Tokyo. Or $60 billion for that matter. 

American forces need extra combat power, not money. And that means they need a Self Defense Force that can fight and bolster US forces in Northeast Asia and farther afield in Asia. 

The Americans are overstretched and in some cases already overmatched by the expanding and improving Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

The Self Defense Force can’t fight? Then why is it rated the world’s fifth most powerful military according to Global Firepower’s 2020 Military Strength Ranking

On paper the JSDF is indeed impressive and it puts on lovely demonstrations. But except for the Maritime Self Defense Force – the Japanese navy – it has little fighting ability. 

This is no fault of its own. Rather, successive governments have consciously tried to emasculate and restrain JSDF development.

One US military officer summed things up recently:

“The JSDF’s value was and remains that of a force-in-being, much as Napoleon’s navy was. As long as it exists, potential adversaries must take it into account. It is of enormous geopolitical importance, but of little use tactically or operationally.”

The officer made an exception for the “gallant” naval force “because they are, in all but name, an integral part of [the US] 7th Fleet and largely ignore whatever the rest of Ichigaya [Ministry of Defense] says! I have no doubt they’d fight.”

Hyperbole?  Unfortunately not.

The JSDF is unable to conduct joint operations  among its component forces, a prerequisite for any effective military. Thus, it is less than the sum of its parts.  Imagine the US military if the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps could not operate together. 

Adversaries would be far less frightened. If Japan really is the fifth most powerful military in the world, one imagines numbers six through whatever must really have problems.

Although the JSDF has bought expensive F35s and has been jury-rigging a couple of ships to upgrade them to “aircraft carriers,” JSDF hardware is a mishmash acquired with little thought of buying or developing what’s needed for a coherent defense. 

And while Japan has fighters, destroyers and other shiny objects aplenty, it still hasn’t got a radio with which the three JSDF services can talk to each other.  

And besides JSDF services not being able to operate with each other, Japanese and US forces, except for the Japanese and American navies, and to a degree in the missile defense arena, can’t operate together as needed to take on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.   

The JSDF has missed its recruiting targets by 20%-25% for years. It’s still not a respected profession in Japan. Morale matters.

As for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s increasing defense spending as Japanese officials boast: He has, but in the decade before he took office Japan reduced defense spending every year. 

So in Abe’s eight years he has managed to increase spending by perhaps 15%. Compared with the defense budget nearly two decades ago, 15% is not much. The threats facing Japan (and the US) these days in Asia have gone up a lot more than 15%.

As for it being politically difficult for Japan to do more, maybe. But the US (Japan’s only ally) has some political difficulties too. Especially if the Japanese say:

“Since it is politically difficult, we refuse to increase spending to attract enough recruits to fully man the JSDF and properly train and equip it. But we expect you Americans to come fully manned, armed and trained to defend us and die for us.”  

That is not a vote getter in Washington DC. So If Trump really wants to improve things, he might tell Tokyo: 

Keep your money. But JSDF had better shape up. Spend more on your own forces – and figure out what Japan needs to defend itself. And don’t expect us to do all the hard work.  The more you do, and the more you do with us, the safer we will all be. 

JSDF services had better figure out how to operate with each other – and with us.  So build a joint headquarters – or make that two of them. One for JSDF to get “joint operations” right, and another where Japanese and US forces operate side-by-side “jointly” defending Japan.

And once I’m reelected lets start joint, all-service training exercises between the JSDF and American forces. If you need some ideas, go down to Yokosuka navy base and look at what the US Navy and the Maritime Self Defense Force have going on.

And one more thing: If you expect American forces to defend Japan, they’d better be able to train in Japan – not have to fly and sail thousands of miles away to practice. And the same goes for the poor JSDF. 

You think I’m a shakedown artist? Japan’s local communities that demand money from Tokyo to allow Japanese and American forces to train in their neighborhoods put the Mafia to shame. Cut them off.

If Trump says all this, it will scare Tokyo far more than hitting them up for a few billion dollars. And in case anybody in Tokyo or Washington is willing, it will also be worth far more to the US and to Japan.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.