Bring U.S.-Japan ties into the 21st century

Several months from now, U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to take his first trip to the Indo-Pacific region, which will reportedly include a visit to Japan. One important reason for this trip is the convening of an in-person leaders-level summit of the Quad countries — Australia, India, Japan and the United States. But just as important is the planned bilateral summit between Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, which is expected to occur during the trip. How should experts assess U.S.-Japan cooperation ahead of this summit, and what more do the Kishida and Biden administrations need to do to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance?

Any assessments of the current state of the U.S.-Japan alliance must begin by acknowledging that the relationship is in a relatively strong position. Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe, Yoshihide Suga and Kishida have provided steady Japanese leadership, even if American counterparts have not always reciprocated. Thankfully, leaders in Tokyo masterfully avoided an alliance breakdown during the Trump administration, despite Donald Trump’s long-held aversion to Japan and his administration’s focus on Japanese burden sharing.

When Biden took office, his team quickly looked to resolve some of these issues, including inking a new deal on alliance burden sharing. As a result, the alliance finds itself in a particularly stable period, with few surprises and steady leadership on both sides of the Pacific.

But there are also some storm clouds on the horizon. Although the United States and Japan have cooperated quite effectively in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this crisis should serve as a reminder that the alliance has much work to do to prepare for a possible contingency with China. Leaders in Washington and Tokyo should be concerned about Ukraine’s implications for a potential Taiwan contingency.

The Biden administration is fond of asserting the importance of “integrated deterrence,” which places a high degree of focus on nonmilitary aspects of deterrence. But the world has just witnessed the fact that nonmilitary tools may be insufficient to deter a determined adversary such as Russia. Yes, the United States, Japan and others are imposing severe costs on Moscow, but that is little reassurance to Ukrainians.

Therefore, the Ukraine crisis should serve as a forceful reminder of the importance of preparing ahead of time for crises that might occur in the months or years ahead. Yet Washington and Tokyo (as well as Taipei) are not yet moving fast enough to meet the challenge. Defense spending levels will have to increase in Japan and Taiwan. The United States will finally have to devote more time and attention to Asia. And closer cooperation will be required to prepare for a variety of potential contingencies, from an all-out invasion of Taiwan to a coercive blockade.

Yet, in terms of alliance architecture, Japan is in many ways still lagging behind America’s other leading allies. This is not the Kishida or Biden administrations’ fault — they simply inherited an alliance that is in need of renovation. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should serve to remind leaders in both Washington and Tokyo of the urgency of this task.

How can the U.S.-Japan alliance be on solid ground today, but still behind other leading U.S. alliances? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), South Korea and Australia each have deeper levels of allied integration — at least in some areas — than the United States and Japan. This must be urgently addressed. Two aspects are critical: combined operational command and combined capability development.

Alliances generate military power differently in the short and long terms. In the short term, allies can best work together when they enjoy combined operational command, which often includes shared command and control arrangements. In the long term, allies can develop systems together, thereby taking advantage of returns to scale and reducing the costs of fielding new capabilities. Combined operation command and combined capability development are therefore the highest level of cooperation for allies, each operating on a different time frame.

A quick examination of America’s other key alliances demonstrates the importance of deeper cooperation in both areas. NATO has both combined operational command and combined capability development. NATO’s Allied Command Operations handles the former while Allied Command Transformation addresses the latter. This is one reason that NATO has been able to respond relatively quickly to Russian provocations, despite being an alliance of 30 countries, which usually work on a consensus basis.

America’s other major allies in Asia have either combined operational command or combined capability development. South Korea and the United States conduct combined operations through the Combined Forces Command. Australia and the United States (along with the United Kingdom) now have combined capability development through their new AUKUS arrangement. In both cases, South Korea and Australia benefit from deep integration with the United States either in force employment or force development.

What about Japan? Unfortunately, it is America’s only major ally that enjoys neither of these arrangements. This is particularly surprising because Japan is the most important U.S. ally in the region of the world that is most important to the United States. In other words, the Biden administration frequently calls China its pacing challenge, so Japan should be America’s pacing ally. But today the alliance has fallen behind.

How can Tokyo and Washington rectify this oversight? In their bilateral summit and upcoming 2-plus-2 meetings, the Kishida and Biden administrations should set new goals for the alliance: establishing the architectures needed for a combined operational command and combined capability development.

What might this look like in practice? It is true that American and Japanese forces already coordinate closely day-to-day, but when crises strike — as was the case during Operation Tomodachi — realigned command structures will be needed. Japanese laws make this more difficult than it would be with some other U.S. treaty allies, but as a beginning, the United States and Japan should look to colocate operational commanders who would be responsible for a Taiwan contingency.

Today, the United States military is already colocated with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in various locations, including Yokota Air Base, Yokosuka Naval Base and various facilities in Okinawa. Yet, command and control during a major crisis would be complicated by the fact that each service of each country would be operating somewhat independently. A new alliance architecture should look to place American and Japanese commanders together in a central location and provide them the authority to command forces in wartime.

Delegating this authority will require more prior planning for how to operate in the event of a major crisis or contingency. This will be especially important if space or terrestrial communications links are severed between units and their commanders in Tokyo, Hawaii, or Washington. This is one reason that joint planning for a Taiwan contingency should be seen as a basic requirement for American and Japanese forces.

Meanwhile, the allies should look to overhaul their approaches to force development, which are too disconnected today. Yes, there have been some notable U.S.-Japan co-development efforts such as the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor. But in recent years these have been few and far between. Indeed, Japan’s participation in the U.S. National Defense Strategy is far too limited, and the same is true of America’s involvement in Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program.

China doesn’t have to coordinate with other countries to achieve returns to scale. It is buying large quantities of increasingly advanced weapons systems, and doing so at prices that are cheap compared to those faced by the United States and Japan. If Washington and Tokyo are to reverse this trend, they will have to think differently about capability development. Gone are the days when the allies could afford to simultaneously pursue separate duplicative programs.

Although the American and Japanese defense sectors coordinate closely on some systems, there is no major new codevelopment program in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Instead, the United States is building anti-ship missile batteries from scratch (despite existing Japanese expertise in this area) while Japan is independently pursuing a new fighter jet (despite existing American expertise). Rectifying this problem will require a political commitment — as was the case with the AUKUS agreement — and substantial bureaucratic logrolling to force institutions and companies to cooperate.

No one should suggest that these two agenda items are easy or simple. But they should be the focus for the U.S.-Japan alliance over the coming decade. Generating more effective combat capability today and greater military capacity tomorrow requires both a combined operational command and combined force development.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should remind observers that the era of state-on-state conflict is not behind us. Preparing the United States and Japan to deter or defend against similar contingencies in the Indo-Pacific region requires a renewed sense of urgency from both Washington and Tokyo. This is not an easy path, but is a necessary one.

Richard L. Armitage

Armitage is president and founding partner of Armitage International, L.C. and a former U.S. deputy secretary of state.