Building Allied Interoperability in the Indo-Pacific Region: Discussion Paper 2

A Case Study in Joint Command and Control for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces

Executive Summary
Joint forces—military forces comprised of more than one service—provide a greater range of operational and tactical options, and therefore can potentially present multiple, complex problems for an adversary, or provide more options for government in responding to crises. Japan has recognized the central requirement for “jointness” in its most recent Defense White Paper, declaring that the cornerstone of Japan’s peace and security is a “dynamic joint defense force” capable of being employed “with a high level of flexibility and readiness based on joint operations.” Moreover, the joint force is to be capable of managing the full spectrum of likely threats from humanitarian disaster response and “gray-zone” activities—remaining below the threshold of conventional military conflict—in the maritime domain through to achieving air supremacy and maritime control in defense of the homeland.

But achieving a high level of competency in joint operations across the spectrum of potential threats is no easy task. Challenges to effective joint action include differences between the services in ways of warfare, decisionmaking, equipment, doctrine, and planning processes; parochialism favoring one service over another for capability development and command and leadership appointments; and divergent logistical support and sustainment procedures. Typically, planning, preparing, and executing joint operations is a more complex activity than for predominantly single-service operations. These challenges are compounded when conducting combined or coalition joint operations where different languages, different operating systems and capabilities, and different political and strategic objectives need to be managed effectively to ensure success.

Many modern militaries, intent on enhancing their effectiveness in joint operations, have invested considerable effort in establishing structures and systems necessary to employ joint forces effectively. Typically, there has been a consistent move away from the traditional arrangement of vesting operational authority with the chiefs of each service (army, navy, or air force). Most modern militaries today have removed operational authority from service chiefs and placed this responsibility in the hands of some form of a unified commander, leaving the service chiefs responsible for raising, training, and sustaining their respective service. In most contemporary cases, the investment in a separate authority to command joint forces has occurred not just at the tactical level of command through the establishment of joint task forces, but has consistently occurred at the operational level as well. Most modern militaries have also commissioned a discrete operational-level headquarters to enable the designated operational authority to control assigned joint forces for operations, and to act as the interface between the military strategic-political level of national command and tactical joint task force commanders.

The U.S. Combatant Commands (COCOM), operating according to the Unified Command Plan; the UK Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ), a three-star operational-level headquarters subordinate to Joint Forces Command; and the Australian Defense Force (ADF) Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) are three models Japan may wish to consider in determining how best to develop its own operational-level joint headquarters. We consider the ADF HQJOC model as best suited to Japan’s circumstances in respect to the form and function of the operational-level headquarters; however, valuable lessons may also be learned from an analysis of the UK and U.S. models of joint command.

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces would benefit from taking advantage of lessons already learned by its allies in development of their respective joint operational-level command and control mechanisms and inculcation of a joint culture. Separating the command and control of operations functions from the chief of defense (and service chiefs) functions has proven beneficial to the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other modern militaries. Maintaining separation between the operational and strategic levels of command allows the strategic level in Japan to place Japanese Self-Defense Force action into the broadest possible context and align its actions with other elements of national power and its allies and partners. Importantly, it provides bandwidth for decisionmakers to anticipate and provide for the influential futures that might arise and it decides whether to act, rather than focusing on just how to act. In deciding whether to act, the strategic level can explore the risks of inaction and compare them with the strategic risks of acting.

Developing a truly joint operating culture, including joint command and control at the operational level, will better align the Japanese Self-Defense Forces with its principal ally—the United States—and enable holistic integration of joint and combined effects in the defense of Japan. A single unified joint commander, distinct from the chief of defense, will enable the United States and Japan to streamline connective personal relationships between senior military leaders and respective staff necessary for effective combined operations. Adopting an operational-level joint headquarters will also align the Japanese Self-Defense Forces with other key allies in its region, in particular Australia. And finally, a unified joint commander, with direct access for operational decisions to the chief of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, will have better prospects for providing holistic support (particularly air and maritime) to the Japanese Coast Guard in response to gray zone activities. If the unified joint commander has direct information links to the Japanese Coast Guard, through embedded or liaison officers and compatible information systems, there will be better prospects for timely and more relevant holistic response options because of shared understanding of the situation, as well as improved prospects for transitioning responsibilities between the Coast Guard and the Self-Defense Forces.

Trent Scott

Former Military Fellow, Alliances and American Leadership Project

Andrew Shearer