Japan’s Perspective on Command and Control Issues in the Japan-U.S. Alliance

This commentary is part of the Exploring New Horizons: Japan’s Defense Priorities project, a CSIS Japan Chair initiative featuring analysis by leading Japanese and American scholars examining the implications of Japan’s new national security and defense strategies and opportunities for bilateral cooperation.

Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS) vividly illustrates Japan’s security landscape: “At this time of an inflection point in history, Japan is finding itself in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII.”

In December 2022, the government of Japan adopted three strategy documents: the NSS, the National Defense Strategy (NDS), and the Defense Buildup Program (DBP). Japan determined with firm resolve that it will fundamentally strengthen its defense capabilities, develop counterstrike capabilities, and try to harness its total national power to embody its national security objectives. Furthermore, the NDS set a goal of establishing the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF)’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) within five years.

Many of the changes within these documents are driven by an operational environment that has drastically changed in the past few years. For example, the People’s Liberation Army has increasingly used assertive actions against neighboring countries, and hybrid warfare and cyberattacks are being waged on a regular basis. As a result, U.S.-Japan cooperation in gray zone situations has become paramount.

This commentary provides recommendations from Japan’s perspective regarding the challenges associated with command and control (C2) in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Specifically, it focuses on issues related to the Japan-U.S. Coordination Mechanism and the PJHQ. First, the paper will review the efforts of the U.S.-Japan Coordination Mechanism since Operation Tomodachi and review issues related to the establishment of the PJHQ. Next, it will review the recent deepening of coordination between the JSDF and U.S. Armed Forces through bilateral exercises and training. Finally, based on these reviews, it will explore the modalities of how bilateral C2 can operate in the future. For example, it will examine and clarify what type of C2 structure is desirable between Japan and the United States once Japan begins establishing the PJHQ and developing counterstrike capabilities.

Finally, this article is based on a key assumption. As expressed by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio at the Diet deliberations in January 2023, “I am not considering sharing or transferring command authority between Japan the United States or to the United States.” The JSDF and U.S. forces will conduct bilateral operations under their respective chains of command.

  1. Review of the U.S.-Japan Coordination Mechanism

The fundamental assumption that Japanese and U.S. forces will conduct operations under their respective chains of command indicates that future C2 does not mean establishing a combined single headquarters like the U.S.-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command (CFC). Instead, it most likely entails a bilateral coordinating mechanism. In reality, the two forces have accumulated and cultivated the bilateral coordination process through countless bilateral exercises and dialogues.

It is appropriate to clarify the flow of the coordination mechanism based on the “Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation” (Defense Guidelines) and the background of the PJHQ discussions. The Japan-U.S. bilateral coordination system rests on the political leadership and relationship between the Japanese prime minister and the U.S. president as well as the Security Consultative Committee (2+2) at the ministerial level. Based on this political leadership, the Security Subcommittee (SSC), Subcommittee for Defense Cooperation (SDC), and Japan-U.S. Joint Committees (JCs) have been established. The Japan-U.S. alliance does not suffer from a lack of venues for consultation and dialogue. Mechanisms for further concrete coordination has been improved mainly in accordance with successive Defense Guidelines.

Following the end of the Cold War, the 1997 Defense Guidelines stipulated the direction of Japan-U.S. cooperation in the post-Cold War era. The 1997 Defense Guidelines created for the first time a bilateral coordination mechanism.

The incumbent 2015 Defense Guidelines, based on the lessons learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake, established the Alliance Coordination Group (ACG). With this revision, the Cabinet Secretariat and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, as well as other relevant ministries and agencies, became expected to participate in the ACG as needed (see below). In addition to the ACG, the Bilateral Planning Mechanism (BPM) was also established for the purpose of formulating Japan-U.S. bilateral operational plans by inviting relevant ministries to participate (see the BCM diagram).

Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM)

Source: Ministry of Defense, Defense of Japan 2022 (Tokyo: Government of Japan, 2022), 285, https://www.mod.go.jp/en/publ/w_paper/wp2022/DOJ2022_EN_Full_02.pdf.

Source: Ministry of Defense, Defense of Japan 2022 (Tokyo: Government of Japan, 2022), 285, https://www.mod.go.jp/en/publ/w_paper/wp2022/DOJ2022_EN_Full_02.pdf.

Bilateral Planning Mechanism (BPM)

Source: Ministry of Defense, Defense of Japan 2022, 286.

Source: Ministry of Defense, Defense of Japan 2022, 286.

The necessity of the PJHQ was strongly recognized by the JSDF after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. The earthquake occurred just four years after the establishment of the Joint Staff Office (JSO) of the JSDF. The JSO is a staff organization that assists the Minister of Defense and also tacitly serves as a joint command headquarters that bundles the three Major Commands of the JSDF: the Ground Component Command (GCC), Self-Defense Fleet, and Air Defense Command.

At the time of the disaster, the joint chief of the JSDF, General Oriki Ryoichi, spent most of his time advising the prime minister and minister of defense with military expertise as well as frequently discussing coordination issues with U.S. joint chief Admiral Mike Mullen, Commander Robert Willard of U.S. Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), and Lieutenant General Burton Field of U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ), overcoming the respective different time zones. Thus, General Oriki had limited time to spend on Major Commands operations and communication with their commanders. Based on these lessons, the JSDF gained a strong recognition that the PJHQ should be promptly established. In March 2018, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s joint panel on security and defense proposed that the Joint Command Headquarter be made permanent.

However, it took 11 years to decide to establish the PJHQ, driven by a range of concerns. One such concern was that the increase in the command layers would eventually cause redundancy. Another was a sense of concern toward the PJHQ, which would hold a powerful operational authority by uniting the three services’ Major Commands, something like the daunting Imperial Army and Navy’s historical dominance over the Japanese government. There was another realistic worry for the services that the PJHQ would absorb staff from the respective staff offices of the JSDF.

However, the establishment of the PJHQ has been clearly set as a priority. The 2022 NDS states that “in order to reinforce effectiveness of joint operational posture, Japan will establish a permanent Joint Headquarters which can unify command of GSDF, MSDF, and ASDF by reviewing the existing organization.”

  1. Recent Japan-U.S. Bilateral Exercises: More Integrated and More Frequent

The Japanese and U.S. militaries have significantly improved the quality and frequency of bilateral exercises in recent years, particularly due to China’s rapid military buildup and its attempts to change the status quo in the South and East China Seas.

At the start of the JX Exercise, the JSDF’s highest joint command post exercise, in January 2023, Japan’s joint chief, General Yamazaki Koji, stated that the aim of the exercise was to “further strengthen the JSDF’s joint operational capabilities by conducting demonstrations and verifications that simulate a series of situations from gray areas to armed attack situations (author’s translation).”

Japanese and U.S. exercises such as Keen Edge, Orient Shield, and Yama Sakura have been evolving to employ existing and emerging capabilities through a distributed network on a global scale to effectively respond to modern security challenges.

Regarding the Yama Sakura 83, General Yoshida Yoshihide, chief of the JSDF, reiterated:

"In this exercise, we were able to dramatically improve the interoperability between the [Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, or JGSDF] and the U.S. Land Forces by demonstrating the operational level of the GCC, which became the Joint Task Force (JTF), and the operational level of the two Armies, as well as the Cross-Domain Operations of the JSDF and the cooperation procedures of the US Army’s Multi Domain Operations and the US Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations."

Resolute Dragon 22, mainly involving the JGSDF and the U.S. Marine Corps, is also another example which demonstrates robust bilateral interoperability capabilities, including exercising integrated C2, targeting, combined arms, and maneuver across multiple domains.

In pursuit of the establishment of the PJHQ and to strengthen the information-sharing function that contributes to cross-domain operations, including the development of the cloud as a common infrastructure, the JSDF is going to replace the central command system to strengthen its C2 function and its ability to connect with related ministries and agencies.

C2 systems will be drastically strengthened within the next five years, thanks both to the establishment of the PJHQ as well as the strengthening of the accompanying C2 system. Bilateral C2 will also be dramatically strengthened and intertwined as a result.

  1. Recommendations for Future Modalities for the Japan-U.S. C2 Structure

As the world has witnessed in Ukraine, the global security environment is becoming more fluid and more fragile. Based upon this recognition, Japanese and U.S. forces are strengthening strategic dialogue and bilateral exercises. It is desirable for the C2 relationship between Japan and the United States to be further strengthened and seamlessly integrated from the political and strategic levels to the military level. The following recommendations can help accomplish this goal.

Political and Policy Levels

In addition to the existing security 2+2 meetings, the first-ever economic 2+2 was held in July 2022. This kind of effort should be encouraged, particularly during an era of hybrid warfare and civil-military fusion. Every national instrument should be incorporated in an orchestrated manner.

  • Increase political involvement in the ACM and designate a politician in the Prime Minister’s Office (Kantei) as head of the ACM.

    The 2015 Defense Guidelines stipulates that if the ACM, consisting of only the government’s officials and JSDF service members, recognizes the need for political instructions or decisions, the ACM can ask for political involvement “as needed.” This stipulation is not enough for responses to gray zone situations and hybrid warfare.

    During the response to the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Japanese and U.S. governments established a bilateral interagency coordination cell 11 days after the accident. The Japanese head was a member of the House of Representatives in the Diet, Hosono Goshi, special adviser to the prime minister, and the U.S. leader was the deputy chief of mission, Ambassador James P. Zumwalt. Coordination meetings were held every evening for a month. These meetings were highly praised by the U.S. participant because information sharing was drastically strengthened, and the Japanese response was orchestrated thanks to the political leadership. Later, the United States called this coordination cell the “Hosono Process” (see Figure 3).

    Considering increasing situational complexity in the future, it is highly likely that new tasks involving multiple relevant ministries will arise leading to confusion about which ministry bears responsibility. In such difficult situations, coordination and decisionmaking by senior government officials may get too complicated. Therefore, to ensure smooth coordination between ministries and that political decisions are made by the government as a whole, Japan should predesignate a politician of the Kantei as head of the ACM.
  • Designate relevant ministries as standing members of the ACG.

    In gray zone situations, bilateral coordination between Japan and the United States is expected to cover a wide range of areas, such as cybersecurity, radio frequency authorization, airport and seaport use, critical infrastructure protection, and economic security. Therefore, relevant ministries—including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications; Ministry of Finance; Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare; Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; and Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (which includes the Japan Coast Guard)—should be standing members of the ACG from the initial phase.

Military Level

  • Clarify the division of roles between the JSO and PJHQ.

    The establishment of the PJHQ will be a major transformation for the JSDF, particularly due to its assigned status and roles.

    The PJHQ will be the highest command that integrates the three Major Commands to carry out joint operations and will be the operational counterpart of INDOPACOM. The roles of the PJHQ are to carry out joint operations of the JSDF, bilateral operations with the U.S. military and coalition nations’ forces, and civilian protection operations.

    The PJHQ’s role in peacetime may include:
    • Formulation of joint defense plans;
    • Formulation of bilateral operational plans with INDOPACOM;
    • Management of Major Commands;
    • Planning and execution of joint, bilateral, and multilateral training and exercises;
    • Engagement with relevant organizations; and
    • Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, both domestically and overseas.

    In a gray zone situation, the PJHQ will be responsible for:

    • Situational awareness;
    • Formulation of action plans in accordance to a situation;
    • Bilateral and multilateral operational coordination; and
    • Coordination of flexible deterrence options with INDOPACOM.

    In the event of an armed attack, when bilateral coordination between forces must be most intensive, the PJHQ would play the following roles:

    • All roles specified under a gray zone scenario; and
    • All-domain maximum bilateral coordination, especially intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and targeting. 
  • Clearly detail the C2 structure during the transition phase from peacetime to situations involving active warfare.

    The most critical period in establishing C2 between Japan and the United States is the transition phase from a gray zone situation to a situation involving armed warfare. During this period, the center of gravity of bilateral C2 will presumably shift from PJHQ-INDOPACOM coordination to coordination between PJHQ and a JTF established for conducting bilateral operations between the U.S. Armed Forces and the JSDF. Either case may be reasonable, either standing up a JTF headquarters deployed from Hawaii similar to Operation Tomodachi, or augmenting USFJ as a JTF-capable headquarters.
  • Strengthen information sharing and integrated targeting.

    Second, in the event of an armed attack, the PJHQ and the U.S. JTF would intensively and energetically coordinate bilateral operations. In particular, as Japan develops its counterattack capabilities, the NDS states “Japan and the U.S. will work together to deal with ballistic missiles and other issues.” In addition to ISR, targeting information will need to be shared in real time between the two forces. For this reason, an integrated U.S.-Japan Common Operating Picture and Integrated Targeting Board will be required.

    The NDS additionally states that the JSDF would possess not only counterstrike capabilities but also the ability to continuously collect accurate targeting information on adversaries and transmit that data in real time, as well as the ability to analyze information, including evaluating the results after implementation. Japan’s possession of holistic counterstrike capabilities would enhance the country’s deterrent effect but also would require close and sophisticated coordination with the United States.

Isobe Koichi is a retired lieutenant general of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.

This project is made possible with support from the Government of Japan.

Isobe Koichi

Retired Lt. Gen., Japan Ground Self-Defense Force