19 March 2023

A Solution for Japan’s Military Mismatch

Samuel P. Porter

If Japan fights a war in the near or distant future, it is likely to be against China. The Japanese government views a Chinese invasion of Taiwan as increasingly plausible, and judging by statements from senior Japanese government ministers in recent years, it’s likely the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) would join the United States in defending Taiwan. Such a scenario would mark only the second time since the Korean War that Japanese forces have deployed to an active combat zone to defend a neighboring nation from invasion.

Given that Chinese naval dominance in Taiwanese waters all but precludes the possibility of deploying troops to Taiwan’s aid, the fighting is likely to take place in the air and on the seas—not on land. Despite this reality, Japan’s navy—the key actor that would lead any potential intervention—is distressingly understaffed due to chronic recruitment shortfalls. Japan’s army also faces significant manpower shortages. But most worryingly, Japan’s military personnel numbers are disproportionate to its present security needs at a time when the Japanese mainland faces no realistic threat of invasion.

Tokyo has offered little justification for this perplexing mismatch, and its recently announced defense spending increases do not include any measures to address recruitment problems in the short term. Given Japan’s present demographic challenges and recruitment difficulties, the Japanese government should resolve the navy’s personnel shortages by reassigning service members from the army. If Japan fails to act quickly to rectify these problems, it risks undermining its defense capabilities at sea when it needs them most.

The Japanese army, officially known as the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), currently has 139,620 soldiers, comprising nearly 65 percent of the military’s 230,754 total service members. The navy, known as the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF), has only 43,435 sailors, almost 2,000 less than its mandated strength of 45,307. It makes up just 19 percent of the overall force, despite being arguably the most important branch for defending Japan in its current security environment.

The roots of this situation are twofold, stemming from recruiting failures and an anachronistic force design that is out of step with Japan’s defense priorities.

Personnel shortfalls are not unique to the navy. Enthusiasm for serving in the military has never been particularly high in postwar Japan. But current recruitment difficulties go beyond the military’s struggle to disassociate itself from prewar Japanese militarism. As an all-volunteer force, the military does not offer competitive wages in Japan’s worker-starved economy. To make matters worse, Japan’s population is rapidly declining, while the number of Japanese between 18 and 26 years old, the ideal age range for recruits, has diminished to just 10.5 million from a peak of 14 million in 1994. Japan’s demographic decline and a number of other economic and social factors all but guarantee that it is unlikely Japan’s military will ever meet its legally authorized strength of 247,154 service members, established most recently by Japan’s Diet in 2020.

Compounding the current acute personnel shortage is that the sizes of each branch are holdovers from the late Cold War. In that period, fears of a Soviet invasion justified fielding a modestly sized land-based force. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Japanese government carried out its largest cut to date of army personnel. As Garren Mulloy cites in Defenders of Japan, numbers were reduced by almost 15 percent, alongside major cuts to inventories of the army’s tanks and artillery pieces.

These cuts have done little to change the fact that the GSDF’s basic structure is that of a conventional land force. Japan’s army is primarily composed of nine combat divisions, which vary in size between 6,000 and 9,000 soldiers. The nine units are ostensibly intended for repelling a large-scale invasion of Japan’s home islands. In recent years, the Japanese government has formed new, smaller brigade-sized units of 2,000 to 4,000 soldiers, which can rapidly deploy to defend Japan’s numerous small islands from a potential Chinese attack. In Japan’s present security environment, its army’s combat divisions lack an obvious purpose.

The Japanese government has not outlined a scenario in which it would even consider a large-scale overseas deployment of ground forces, and even if it did, the GSDF lacks the logistical sealift and airlift capacity needed to deploy and sustain more than a small portion of its combat divisions abroad. In any case, a deployment of Japanese ground forces to defend South Korea from a North Korean invasion, for instance, is almost inconceivable due to continued mistrust. So long as historical animosities endure between Japan and South Korea, Japanese soldiers will likely remain unwelcome—adding further futility to Japan’s overinvestment in combat divisions.

Since 2012, the steady rise of Chinese naval power has decisively shifted Japanese defense policy toward the maritime domain. During the Cold War, Japan focused primarily on defending Hokkaido from a Soviet amphibious invasion. But now, given the rising possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Japan’s strategic gaze has shifted south to the East China Sea and Japan’s southern islands, which control access to the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

In order to secure this area, the Japanese navy has added new ships to its fleet over the past decade and intends for future ships to require fewer sailors. But these risky changes and rapid pace of naval construction cannot solve the more fundamental problem of the navy’s critical personnel shortages for operating existing ships and conducting regular maintenance work.

Tokyo’s desire to field an ever-larger fleet without increasing its number of sailors is not only an unsustainable plan, but a dangerous one. The navy’s shortage of sailors will undermine its capabilities to operate in combat. Undermanned ships are prone to accidents and may easily become overwhelmed in battle because crew members are exhausted from assuming extra duties. The navy plans on acquiring an expanding inventory of unmanned vessels, but they are no panacea to its personnel shortage. Even unmanned vessels require the training of specialized crews on land to maintain them and support their operations.

Last November, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida garnered global attention by announcing his plans to significantly increase Japan’s defense budget. The proposed plan would raise spending from 1 percent to 2 percent of Japan’s GDP by 2027, yet it seemingly does nothing to address the immediate personnel needs of the Japanese navy, as noted by former military officers. Instead, Tokyo plans to expand its cyberwarfare command and develop new offensive missile capabilities within the army, which will require new recruits or retraining of existing personnel.

Without any prospect of attracting new recruits, the Japanese military must use the manpower it already possesses to make up for personnel shortages within its navy and carry out its defense duties. Fortunately, the Japanese government appears to understand this reality. In December, the JSDF established a precedent for transferring personnel within different branches of the military when it announced that it intends to reassign 2,000 personnel from the army to the navy and Japan’s air force by 2025 to create a new electronic warfare and intelligence unit. This an important move for modernizing the MSDF’s capabilities, but it does not address the Japanese navy’s urgent need for additional sailors to supplement understaffed ships and form the crews of newly constructed vessels.

More ambitious action is required if Japan is serious about achieving its defense goals. To that end, Tokyo should draw up a plan for transferring further army personnel into the navy. If necessary, it could also consider downgrading one or more army divisions to brigade size, which would provide approximately 3,000-9,000 additional personnel for the navy. The money saved and personnel added by this move will provide the navy with resources that are otherwise unavailable through recruitment alone. Personnel transfers should be staggered over an extended period to lessen the impact on the operative capabilities of affected army units. Since this process will be spread out over an extended period of time, it is imperative to start sooner rather than later.

Despite Kishida’s extremely low popularity, reassignment of Japanese military personnel does not require public approval and is unlikely to elicit any opposition. More challenging, however, will be the predictably fierce resistance to these reductions from army leadership. But if the Japanese government is serious about countering rising Chinese naval power, it must be prepared to face down any bureaucratic resistance that it will surely encounter. Failure to address the MSDF’s growing personnel problems means Japan’s maritime defense capabilities will remain severely misaligned with the challenges it faces.

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