Bruce W. Bennett is a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, working mostly within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center. He is an expert in Northeast Asian military issues, including changes in the regional security environment, future ROK military force requirements, the Korean military balance, counters to North Korean chemical and biological weapon threats in Korea and Japan, and dealing with a North Korean collapse. He has worked with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, U.S. Forces Korea and Japan, the U.S. Pacific Command and Central Command, the ROK and Japanese militaries, and the ROK National Assembly.
Dispatch Japan: Let’s talks about Japan’s decision to exercise the right of collective self-defense. Historians and political scientists tend to see this as a major development. My sense is that military planners look through the prism of practical implications for operations, especially in the event of a Korea contingency. How important do you think the policy change really is?
Bennett: You are right. There clearly are people with different perspectives. Here is my perspective. We know that in Japan there are seven bases that were set up as UN facilities during the Korean War. Those are bases over which there is an established right for US forces to operate. But there is no way the US can deploy a major military force to Korea using only those seven facilities, only three of which are actual air bases. Thus, the US would have to go beyond those seven, and utilize other facilities. Given other US-Japan agreements, that might seem not too difficult to do. But those agreements were made by people who were prepared to say: ‘We can probably do this without getting too far into collective self-defense.’ In reality, many people do worry that in an actual crisis, there could be challenges to a sitting Cabinet, with opponents saying: ‘Wait a minute. US use of those other bases violates the Constitution by facilitating US combat operations against a third country. Back off.’
There certainly is the appearance that everything is good, and that Japan could support the American deployment. The practicality is that when push comes to shove, without Japan putting into place the legislation to implement the recent Cabinet decision on collective self-defense, there is a serious risk.
Dispatch Japan: It’s been known since at least 2010 that a secret agreement exists that exempts the US forces in Japan from the prior consultation requirement of the Security Treaty in the event North Korea breaks the Armistice. You are saying that this exemption applies only to the seven UN-flagged bases, and these would be insufficient?
Bennett: That’s right. Look at the seven UN-flagged bases. The air fields are Yokota, Kadena, and Futenma. That is it; no other air bases would automatically be available. And yet today, we use a number of other air facilities on a regular basis. And we would need additional air fields to airlift a massive force into Korea.
In theory, we have other agreements with Japan that would allow us to use other facilities. But there is a risk, especially if there is no consensus in Japan, that we might not gain access; access is not automatic, as it is with the UN-flagged bases. The risk would probably rise as North Korea inevitably made threats against Japan precisely to coerce Japanese into opposing American usage. It’s not as if a majority of Japanese would be required to disrupt American access. We know how the Japanese system works. It becomes difficult to function if a sizeable minority is pushing hard against the majority.
Japan exercising the right of collective self-defense reassures US military planners that the bases that would absolutely be required in a Korea contingency would actually be available.
Dispatch Japan: How do you think the recent change will affect the actual roles and missions of the SDF?
Bennett: Let’s look at it first in the context of Korea, and then look at other possibilities. In the context of Korea, one could see the SDF far more forward deployed, especially naval forces, where they could be assisting in stopping submarines and other North Korean vessels. Without collective self-defense, the SDF would likely consider these to be roles that go beyond what they are authorized to do.
Of course, there is the issue of missile defense. One of the best ways to destroy a missile that is headed out of the region, toward the United States, would be to kill it in boost phase. But to do that, you have to be fairly close-in to North Korea, and there is a question of whether the Japanese could do that if it were not assessed the missile is headed to Japan.
The recent change will give them the right to shoot at any missile that is headed roughly in their direction.
Without the change, a Japanese commander might feel compelled to throw the issue back to Tokyo, which might provoke a protracted debate; not an attractive scenario when you’re dealing with a missile.
Dispatch Japan: The Cabinet Statement strikes an interesting balance between sticking to the spirit of Article 9, but with language vague enough to open the door to a pretty wide range of missions. In practical terms, what do you think the biggest effect will be with regard to Korea?
Bennett: The American voices I hear say that with regard to Korea, the recent change is helpful. With regard to other possible missions, we’ve always asked the Japanese to do more than they have been willing to do, whether in the Persian Gulf area, or regionally, or dealing with oil lines of communications. They’ve been reluctant. But now, it seems Japan may be prepared to tact more as a major power, and to perform these kinds of supporting roles. The people I talk to are generally delighted that Japan is ready to do that.
Dispatch Japan: But Korea is the priority?
Bennett: I think so. The broader regional context is also important, but we’re probably looking at a 70% to 30% proposition, from the perspective of American personnel.
Dispatch Japan: Could you elaborate on what an American buildup in Japan would look like in the event of a contingency in Korea? Remind everyone of the scale of buildup we would likely see.
Bennett: Let’s start by looking at Operation Iraqi Freedom. US ground forces in Iraq reached about 170,000. And then there was involvement from other services, which brought the total US presence to about 250,000 in Iraq.
I think we would stretch beyond that in a Korea contingency, though our force size is also coming down.
My guess is that we would reach somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000. Most of them would probably be in Korea, but would likely go through Japan on the way. That’s because of the limited airfield space in Korea.
Dispatch Japan: Do you anticipate collective self-defense leading to a joint command of US and Japanese forces, or joint task forces? Or just greater levels of coordination.
Bennett: A lot of this is predicated on North Korea. If North Korea were to start shooting at Japan, the potential for a joint command becomes much higher. Serious attacks on Japan could happen very early in a Korea campaign. Before that time, we’ll probably continue to see separate commands, but much better coordination.
The American and Japanese navies are quite close; very familiar with each other. In a crisis, they could come together pretty quickly. The two air forces are pretty familiar with each other as well. They do a fair amount of joint exercising and training.
Some kind of joint command arrangement would function more effectively if it were in place before a crisis. I don’t think that is likely to happen anytime soon. But the recent change will allow the two forces to iron out a lot of wrinkles that now exist because of the restrictions imposed by the traditional interpretation of Article 9. The two militaries will undoubtedly be better prepared to work together in a crisis.
Dispatch Japan: So, overall, this is more of an incremental development than a monumental shift, when looked from an operational perspective?
Bennett: I would put it closer to the incremental side. On the incremental side, it is fairly big. But this is not a watershed decision by Japan, as far as I can tell. The Abe government is trying to put in place policies that would allow Japan to assume a more prominent role in international interactions, including both with regard to any conflict in Korea, and with regard to other scenarios or missions. Japan looks at Korea and says: ‘Even if North Korea does not threaten us at the outset of a conflict, they don’t like us, they are going to attack us sooner or later, so shouldn’t we be participating in and supporting the coalition early on? Wouldn’t that help to get a conflict in Korea over-with as quickly as possible?’
Dispatch Japan: How do you evaluate Prime Minister Abe’s role in all of this. He has always opposed Article 9 on the grounds that it limited Japanese sovereignty, and that it amounted to “Victor’s Justice” after World War II. That’s in contrast to defense and foreign policy specialists, who have been actively discussing and promoting collective self-defense on practical grounds.
Bennett: AsI suggested, to some extent this is an incremental set of changes. The Abe government is opening up the door. They perceive they can’t open it too wide, but it’s more open now than before.
I am concerned that Japan-Korea relations have become so muddied. Privately, I think the two governments work together a bit more than we realize. But publicly, there is a fair degree of dislike in both countries. That makes any kind of political resolution very difficult. Political leaders in both countries have allowed the problem to fester.
For now, this has all made it difficult for Korea and Japan to deepen security cooperation.
And there is a risk that Korea and Japan, over time, could find themselves drifting toward greater levels of antagonism.