Japanese sailors aboard the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ship JS Hyuga direct a US Marines MV-22 Osprey to land during the Dawn Blitz 2015 exercise off the coast of Southern California. Photo: AFP / Mark Ralston

Japans’ new defense minister, Nobuo Kishi, reportedly will visit Washington in October.  The typical first visit is a get-to-know-you affair where both sides smile and declare “steady as she goes,” and “the alliance has never been stronger.” 

The Japanese government holds its breath, hoping the US doesn’t ask for anything difficult, which means anything more than Japan is already doing or planning to do.

The US alliance managers tread carefully so as not to upset the Japanese. For both sides, a smooth visit is a successful visit. More substantial and potentially contentious matters can always be put off for later.

Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China is launching ships at a prodigious clip, building its air force, and figuring out how to use it all to defeat China’s enemies – a category that includes Japan and the US. 

Press reports indicate that the recently canceled Aegis Ashore missile defense project will be a main topic of discussion.   

Aegis Ashore is important – as is an integrated air and missile defense for both Japan and the US. But if by magic Aegis Ashore were resolved immediately, it would not solve Japan’s defense shortcomings.

A suggestion: The US should consider what it most needs from Japan, defense-wise – and ask for it while Kishi is in town. (I wrote recently about how important it is to tell a Japanese prime minister directly what it is the US really and truly needs. The same advice goes when you’re dealing with a defense minister.)

What does the US need? A more capable Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) that can fight alongside US forces and vice versa.

US and Japanese troops during a joint military exercise in a file photo. Image: Facebook

As for the more capable JSDF, it’s not considered polite to say the following, but with the People’s Liberation Army breathing down Japanese and American necks, here goes:

The Japanese military is not built or configured for or capable of fighting an actual war against a serious opponent. And the Chinese are a serious opponent.

Really? Just ask JSDF leadership about the following:

  • Joint operations and communications
  • Logistics
  • Timelines and sequences for mobilization
  • War stocks (extra ammunition and materiel)
  • Manpower and recruitment shortfalls
  • Casualty replacements
  • Realistic war-fighting training and exercises

And this only scratches the surface.

One almost despairs. The problem isn’t the quality of JSDF personnel. Rather, Japan’s civilian leadership gets most of the blame. No need to mention this to Defense Minister Kishi. He probably already knows.

As for US forces and JSDF being able to operate together, a senior American officer recently claimed US and Japanese forces were nearing interoperability.  That may be true for the US Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force with some more effort. But otherwise, it is hardly the case.

One experienced observer vowed to believe that “nearing interoperability” is in reality “when MSDF and USN ships are holding the same common operating picture as the GSDF (Ground Self Defense Force) battalion commander on Miyako Jima with cruise missiles.” And the US Air Force and the JASDF, not to mention US Marines and Army, also have to be part of the “common operating picture” as well.

Improving JSDF capability will not be easy. But sometimes a bite-sized approach to reforming a larger organization can work.

Here’s an idea to run by Defense Minister Kishi: Create immediately a standing permanent Japan-US Joint Task Force to defend the East China Sea as well as Japan’s southern islands including the Senkakus and surrounding areas.

A good way to learn about warfighting is for JSDF commanders and personnel to work alongside US forces to defend Japanese territory from an imminent threat.

As part of the curriculum, Japanese and Americans will need to allocate forces, develop joint contingency plans and hold regular and realistic training, simulations and warfighting labs. And conduct actual operations.

This would build joint capability between the JSDF and US forces. And it also can further professionalize a chunk of the JSDF that wants to master its profession and learn real warfighting while going where the action is.

In the process, parts of the GSDF, ASDF, and MSDF will be forced to cooperate with each other. And maybe the jointness bug might infect the larger JSDF. 

“Not only would such a standing combined US-JSDF task force HQ allow relationships to develop and to function better in a crisis, but just the mere establishment would serve as a deterrent to Chinese adventurism,” a former senior US defense official commented to this writer.

So maybe US alliance managers can ask Defense Minister Kishi for this and sweeten the deal by telling him the US doesn’t want more money from Japan. Instead, an ally that can pull its own weight and fight alongside American forces will do nicely.

Newly appointed Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi delivers a speech during a press conference at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on September 16. Photo: AFP / Charly Triballeau

Kishi should understand. He didn’t get the defense minister position just because he is former Prime Minster Abe’s brother. Rather he’s been studying defense matters for years, and has visited the US a number of times and met with US officers and officials.

Some officers who have met him note that he doesn’t reckon he knows everything – unlike many senior officials, American and Japanese.

There is also evidence that he thinks well beyond the amateurish approach to Japan’s defense of buying this or that piece of expensive hardware and counting on the Americans to fill in the gaps. 

Kishi is said to grasp how Japan fits into regional geostrategy. Case in point: He recognizes Taiwan’s importance to Japan’s defense. If the PRC dominates Taiwan, Japan is in a serious fix as the PLA has then broken the first-island chain and sits astride Japan’s key shipping lanes. 

America will be on its heels at that point, and not even nuclear weapons will save Japan.  You’d think every Japanese defense minster would understand this. They don’t.

So when Kishi comes to Washington, tell him clearly what America needs most from Japan: A JSDF that can fight, and fight alongside the Americans. And to move forward on both counts, make the Joint Task Force a reality. 

He will understand.

But if Kishi’s visit ends with both nations just announcing that everything is fine and even getting better, you’ll know neither is true.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.