Opportunities and ChallengesPartnership in the littorals: A Japanese perspective
by COL Yusuke Kawachi
>COL Kawachi is a Field Artillery Officer in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force with command experience of a surface-to-ship missile battery. He graduated from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in 2017. He currently serves as the Military Attaché at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, DC.     Japan should be considered a pacing ally for the United States while China emerges as its pacing challenge.1 This description is a result of not only the two countries’ shared values and interests but also Japan’s unique geopolitical position in a moment of renewed U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific. The Japanese Archipelago constitutes the bulk of the First Island Chain, which lies east of the Eurasian landmass. From a Japanese perspective, Force Design 2030 and its related operational concepts for the Marine Corps are seemingly all oriented toward the operational environment of the Western Pacific. It would be difficult to discuss operations in the littorals without the inclusion of Japan as an island nation. As the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) have been adapting to the current security environment, the Marine Corps’ initiatives offer new opportunities for collaboration with the JSDF, especially its land component, the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF). Such opportunities will inevitably entail a number of challenges the JSDF/JGSDF and the U.S. joint force/Marine Corps will have to tackle together.

Nature of the Operational Problems
     Japan is facing pressure from three strategic directions: the Sea of Okhotsk, the Korean Peninsula, and the East China Sea. However, the pressure from the latter is of most concern. The nature of the problem is complex, spanning the gray zone and conventional levels. China’s rapid military build-up has been significant in the areas of its nuclear arsenal, missile force, and maritime/air capabilities.2 As claimed in A Concept for Stand-in Forces, the proliferation of the mature precision-strike regime (MPSR) is one of the key characteristics of the current operational environment.3 Gen Berger’s warning about coercive activities below the threshold of violence, employed under the umbrella of the MPSR, should be taken literally.4 It has been widely pointed out that China pursues a so-called cabbage strategy in gray zone operations, surrounding the maritime areas over which it claims sovereignty with successive and concentric layers of maritime militias, coast guard cutters, and naval vessels.5 The outermost layer of the People’s Liberation Army reportedly includes elements of its ashore Rocket Force.6 Their medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) such as the DF-21 can reach the entirety of the Japanese archipelago.7 One may therefore speculate that the People’s Liberation Army’s growing confidence in its ability to deter the United States and its allies from responding on the conventional military level has become an incentive for Beijing’s increasingly assertive and aggressive behavior on the gray-zone level.8 Thus, the rungs of the escalation ladder, which were once climbed temporally and sequentially, are now present simultaneously.

Opportunities for Collaboration
     To address this reality squarely, the JSDF has been modernizing its architecture, adjusting its force posture, and developing new operational concepts. The efforts on both sides of the Pacific have opened up new opportunities for collaboration between Japan and the United States. Collaboration between the JGSDF and the Marine Corps, in particular, is key for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.
     Since 2013, the JGSDF has been making some of its existing divisions and brigades lighter and more mobile, suitable for rapid deployment to potential operational areas. It expanded its own amphibious capabilities into a standing brigade in 2018. It has also established new garrisons on the Nansei (Southwest) Islands, basing ISR assets, anti-ship and anti-air missiles, and security forces there.9 The new JGSDF emerging from these programs is in many ways similar, albeit coincidentally, to the Marine Corps as envisioned in Force Design 2030. However, the JGSDF is not merely following in the footsteps of the Marine Corps. For example, the Marine Corps is a relative newcomer to groundbased anti-ship missiles with its ROGUE-FIRES program, whereas the JGSDF developed its Type-88 Surface-to-Ship Missile during the Cold War. It has therefore operated them for several decades and garnered extensive experience. Moreover, the Japan Ministry of Defense is currently working to extend the range of the latest Type-12 Surface-to-Ship Missile.10
     While both the JGSDF and the Marine Corps are seemingly converging in terms of future capabilities, it should also be noted that the JGSDF is inherently a stand-in force. Compared to its sister Services, the JGSDF will never withdraw from Japan’s national territories, standing always inside the enemy’s weapon engagement zone. Its soldiers will live and fight on the land inherited from their ancestors. For all that, the JGSDF enjoys certain home-court advantages, including its robust and resilient landbased operational infrastructure comprised of, but not limited to, basing facilities, logistics, communication, and command and control. These are luxuries that Marine Corps expeditionary forces cannot readily afford.
     Therefore, if sufficiently synchronized, the JGSDF and the Marine Corps will be able to serve as force multipliers and enablers to each other. Leveraging its advantages, the JGSDF may shape conditions for the naval team of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to operate along the First Island Chain, helping it to deescalate crises and terminate conflicts early. It may also contribute its own assets to a kill web built around the allied forces. At the same time, the Marine Corps may serve as a gateway for the JGSDF to link to a gigantic kill web comprised of the U.S. joint force. Together, the bilateral stand-in forces would be an efficient deterrent to any adversary throughout the continuum of competition, prevailing better in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fight. In fact, the JGSDF and the Marine Corps have taken strides toward such a direction, as evidenced by the recent Exercise RESOLUTE DRAGON in December 2021.11 Their combined readiness to fight and win in conflicts, as demonstrated in such exercises, would make them more advantageous in competition in steady-state.

Challenges Ahead
     With the opportunities discussed in mind, there is a range of issues to be considered. First, any defense cooperation involving the JGSDF or the Marine Corps cannot be limited to the collaboration between just the two Services. Recently, the Marine Corps F-35Bs landed on JS Izumo of the Maritime Self-Defense Force in support of the F-35B program of the Air Self-Defense Force. The JSDF’s relationship with the Marine Corps spans across the Services. Similarly, from the perspective of the JSDF, the Marine Corps is but one component of the U.S. joint force. The partnership at the service level should align with guidance from a joint level or a higher policy level, with the Services speaking with one voice. For example, linking the JGSDF and the Marine Corps forces to form a unified kill web is not a simple matter of digitally linking platforms. There should be prescriptive policy guidance from a higher level regarding what data and information is or is not shareable in such an architecture. When it comes to coordinating capabilities and postures in and around Japan, the U.S. Services need to be represented by the DOD talking to the Japan Ministry of Defense through a proper channel, given the politically sensitive nature of access and basing.12
     Second, there should be a shared operational concept between the JGSDF and the Marine Corps, nested within the one at the joint level and based on policy guidance from the Ministry of Defense/DOD. While the Marine Corps’ operating concepts—concepts for expeditionary advanced base operations and stand-in forces—suggest that they are focused on the contact layer and the blunt layer in the Global Operating Model, it is not immediately clear to the eyes of Japanese planners how they relate to concepts from other U.S. Services, such as the multi-domain operation concept of the U.S. Army.13 Japanese planners are keenly monitoring what kind of role these concepts would play in a much larger picture of the Joint Warfighting Concept or the Integrated Deterrence. The JGSDF has partnered with the U.S. Army as well as the Marine Corps. As such, it stands ready to take part in integrating those various concepts into a unified bilateral concept.
     Finally, any operational concept shared by the JGSDF and the Marine Corps should have a clear theory of victory.14 If the MPSR, which emboldens China in the gray zone, is the defining characteristic of the environment, who will address the problem? Will responding to coercive measures in kind, only with deterrence by detection, be sufficient to deny any fait accompli? How can the United States and its allies avoid being deterred at the conventional level? How could they effectively impose costs on adversaries in regard to the MPSR? Who will fill the capability gap in a post-INF (Intermediate Nuclear Missile Treaty) world and how? These questions remain unanswered in the Marine Corps’ current operational concepts. Whatever answers there may be, these questions must be bilaterally addressed to synchronize operations on both sides.

     Once the challenges mentioned above are squarely addressed, the JGSDF and the Marine Corps will be able to further accelerate their collaboration at the service level. In such an endeavor, both Services will need to specify what they expect from each other in concrete scenarios, across all the warfighting functions. They will have to develop supporting concepts in each function. They should test divisions of roles and responsibilities repeatedly in realistic training and exercises while continually updating their respective doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy. The problems include the lingering ones of command and control structures as well as organizational cultures.15 While the tasks ahead are daunting, there are good reasons not to be pessimistic. The two militaries have cultivated a similar warrior culture, mutual respect, and understanding—all the more because their predecessors fiercely fought each other all over the Pacific. This relationship has been strengthened through the seven decades of alliance. To use a phrase from Gen Mattis, the JGSDF and the Marine Corps should be “no better friend” to each other and “no worse enemy” when unified against our challengers. Such a relationship is a solid basis for any partnership in the littorals.

>Author’s Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, the Japan Ministry of Defense, or the Government of Japan.

Notes1. Zack Cooper, Melanie Marlowe, and Christopher Preble, “Talent Management for a Modern Military,” War on the Rocks, (December 2021), available at https://warontherocks.com.

2. Japan Ministry of Defense, Defense of Japan 2021, (Tokyo: September 2021).

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, A Concept for Stand-in Forces, (Washington, DC: December 2021).

4. Ibid; and Gen David H. Berger, “A Concept for Stand-In Forces,” Proceedings, (November 2021), available at https://www.usni.org.

5. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific, Second Edition: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, December 2018); Bonnie S. Glaser and Matthew P. Funaiole, “South China Sea: Assessing Chinese Paranaval Behavior within the Nine-Dash Line,” in China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, ed. Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press 2019).

6. Staff, “Chūgoku Engan ni Chitaikan Misairu, Senkaku Shinnyū no Kōsen to Renkei,” [Surface-to-ship missiles deployed on the Chinese coast in concert with China’s governmental ships intruding into the Japanese territorial waters around Senkakus], Mainichi Shimbun, (January 2020), available at https://mainichi.jp; and Staff, “Senkaku Ryōkai Shinnyūji ni Misairutei no Tenkai, Chūgokugun ga Kaikeikyoku to Rendō” [Missile-Equipped Vessels Deployed as Chinese Patrol Boats Intrude Into the Japanese Territorial Waters Around Senkakus–Collaboration of China’s Military With Its Coast Guard], Sankei Shimbun, (August 2020), available at https://www.sankei.com.

7. Toshi Yoshihara, Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on “China’s Offensive Missile Forces,” (Washington, DC: April 2015), available at http://www.uscc.gov; Toshi Yoshihara, “Chinese Missile Strategy and the U.S. Naval Presence in Japan: The Operational View from Beijing,” Naval War College Review, (Summer 2010), available at https://www.usnwc.edu.

8. This evokes the stability-instability paradox, which featured prominently in the Cold War, raising questions about how the stability seemingly established at the conventional level could be destabilized again in favor of the United States and its allies. Glenn Snyder, “The Balance of Power and the Balance of Terror,” in The Balance of Power, ed. Paul Seabury, (San Francisco, CA: Chandler, 1965); Brad Roberts, “Extended Deterrence and Strategic Stability in Northeast Asia,” NIDS Visiting Scholar Paper Series, No. 1 (August 2013), http://www.nids.go.jp; Michael B. Peterson, “The Chinese Maritime Gray Zone: Definition, Dangers, and the Complications of Rights Protection Operations,” in China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, ed. Andrew A. Erickson et al., (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2019); and Peter A. Dutton, “Conceptualizing China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations,” in China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, ed. Andrew A. Erickson et al., (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2019).

9. Defense of Japan 2021.

10. Japan Ministry of Defense, Defense Programs and Budget of Japan: Overview of FY2021 Budget, (Tokyo: December 2020).

11. Sgt Kirstin Spanu, “Integrated Deterrence: U.S. Marines, Japanese Soldiers Complete Largest Ever Bilateral Field Exercise in Japan,” Marine Corps, (December 2021), available at https://www.marines.mil.

12. Maj Richard M. Pazdzierski, “The Impact of Base Politics on Long-Range Precision Fires: A Closer Look at Japan,” Military Review, (July–August 2021), available at https://www.armyupress.army.mil.

13. A Concept for Stand-in Forces; and Department of the Navy, Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, (Washington, DC: February 2021).

14. Brad Roberts, On Theories of Victory, Red and Blue, Livermore Papers on Global Security, (Livermore, CA: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2020).

15. LtGen (Ret) Koichi Isobe, USMC Force Design 2030: An Opportunity for a New Deterrence Strategy in Japan, (Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, September 2021), available at https://spfusa.org.