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Aug 24, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

4 mins read

Normalizing Japan's Military Isn't a Straight Sprint, It's a Set of Hurdles

Members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces have more freedom now than they have had in the past to aid allies.
(ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights
  • Japan is on its way toward normalizing its military, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
  • But beyond the inherent political challenges of this mission, the country's military must also contend with fiscal and demographic barriers.
  • These obstacles will not prevent the normalization of the Self-Defense Forces, but they will make the process slow and incremental.

Japan's military may be coming around on the idea that the best defense is a good offense. Since the end of World War II, Article 9 of the country's constitution has strictly limited the capabilities of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, prohibiting belligerency and military aggression. Tokyo, however, has been slowly broadening the scope of its military ambitions over the past two decades, taking steps down a path toward complete normalization. The process has not been seamless. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, has had to adjust his ambitious timeline in the face of popular opposition. But beyond the political challenges, larger hurdles loom.

Tiptoeing Toward Rearmament

Tokyo has been revisiting the constitution to expand what the military can and cannot do. Though formally amending the document is still years away, reinterpretations of its existing language have given the Self-Defense Forces more freedom to defend Japan abroad and to come to the aid of its allies. The forces also have begun building up new, more offensive capabilities. Even so, the Japanese military is geared toward defensive operations. The Self-Defense Forces still lack land-attack cruise missiles, bombers or the ability to penetrate enemy air defenses.

Today, as North Korea races to complete a full-fledged nuclear arsenal and China's military power continues to grow, Japan has been forced to reconsider its position. Tokyo has become increasingly unwilling to rely entirely on Washington's military and has begun weighing the benefits of acquiring offensive weaponry, such as land-attack cruise missiles. During talks with the United States on Aug. 17, in fact, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said that Japan intends to revise its guidelines for national defense to enable its military to obtain and use weapons to strike enemy bases.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

But two obstacles stand in Tokyo's path toward this goal: money and manpower. After years of underinvestment in the military, Japan is struggling to replace its old and outdated equipment, let alone to make expensive upgrades to its anti-ballistic missile defense structure. Although the country will almost certainly amp up defense spending during its next five-year fiscal plan — covering 2019 to 2023 — money to help build out the armed forces' offensive capabilities will be hard to find. The Japanese defense budget is unlikely to grow much faster than it has in recent years, at a rate of 0.8 percent to 1.5 percent, since the Ministry of Finance firmly opposes boosting military spending. Japan's offensive development objectives, moreover, will have to compete for funding with its numerous other defense needs.

The tight budget, in turn, makes it hard for the Japanese military to draw new recruits. More and more, the national government must compete with the private sector for personnel. But providing the salaries and benefits necessary to make a job in the military appealing for young workers is an expensive endeavor. Furthermore, the number of people eligible for recruitment to the Self-Defense forces — individuals from 18 to 26 years old — has declined by almost 40 percent in the last two decades. The average age of Self-Defense Forces personnel in 2010 was 35.1 years, more than five years higher than the average age of U.S. military members. The Self-Defense Forces' numbers have been no more auspicious in recent years, despite the military's attempts to recruit more women. To create new offensively oriented military units, Japan's armed forces will need more members; the military is shorthanded as it is, with a staffing rate between 85 and 95 percent. Relying more on unmanned technology and weaponry offers a solution to this problem, but the highly skilled workers needed to operate and maintain the devices are most likely to choose jobs in the private sector.

Nevertheless, after two decades of slow but steady progress, combined with Pyongyang's unyielding nuclear missile development and Beijing's armed forces expansion, Tokyo will be loath to give up its quest for military normalization. Its fiscal and demographic limitations will force Japan to approach its goal slowly and methodically. In the meantime, however, the country can rely on the defensive strength of its capable military, and on its alliance with the United States. Though the hurdle race toward a normalized military will be challenging, the extra time it demands won't be too much of a burden for Japan.

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