Joint Headquarters: Create System That Can Respond to Crises Immediately

The Defense Ministry reportedly plans to establish a “joint headquarters” to command the three services of the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces with about 220,000 personnel in an integrated manner. It is important to improve the readiness capabilities of the SDF in emergencies and to deepen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

The government aims to establish the joint headquarters in 2025 and plans to earmark funds for that purpose in the fiscal 2024 budget request. It will be established at the ministry’s headquarters in Tokyo’s Ichigaya district, with about 240 personnel under the leadership of the joint commander.

The creation of the post of the joint commander is intended to reduce the burden on the chief of staff, the top official among the uniformed officers who is responsible for a variety of missions on a daily basis.

Currently, the chief of staff receives orders from the defense minister and instructs the commanders of the three services of the Self-Defense Forces on specific operational details. The chief of staff is also tasked with advising the prime minister and defense minister on how the SDF should operate.

For example, immediately after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the three services of the Self-Defense Forces carried out missions such as rescuing those affected and transporting relief supplies based on instructions from the chief of staff. In response to North Korea’s prior missile launch notices, the chief of staff prepared interception arrangements each time in close communication with commanding officers of the Maritime Self-Defense Force and others.

The joint commander will be in charge of giving instructions to the SDF, one of the two main roles presently held by the chief of staff. The joint commander will reportedly have the authority to command specific operations of SDF units.

With the reduced burden, the chief of staff will likely be able to focus more on missions that support political decision-making.

The creation of the joint headquarters is also meant to facilitate communications with the U.S. military.

The chief of staff consults with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on medium- and long-term security strategies, and with the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on joint operations between the SDF and U.S. armed forces.

After the creation of the joint headquarters, the joint commander will formulate joint operations with the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and the chief of staff will discuss strategy with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Japan and the United States should closely coordinate strategies and operations to strengthen their joint response capabilities.

There have been some cautious opinions regarding the creation of the joint headquarters, with some saying it is redundant, akin to “building a rooftop on a rooftop.”

This is because the current Joint Staff, which has about 500 staffers, is under the control of the chief of staff to support the person in that position. The Joint Staff has departments that are responsible for all SDF operations and communication systems.

It is important to clarify the division of roles between the joint headquarters and the Joint Staff.

Under the principle of civilian control, it is necessary to establish a chain of command and information notification channels within the SDF to ensure that orders from the prime minister and defense minister are accurately conveyed to SDF units in the field.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 12, 2023)