Beneath the often contentious US-Japan basing dilemma is an underlying truth: that armed forces need to train in order to retain their effectiveness. Those based outside of their home countries not only need living space, room to park planes, and places to bury munitions, but they also need geographic space to train. Under the present conditions of the US-Japan alliance, Japan finds itself confronted with the necessity of accommodating 27,000 American service members, their families, bases and equipment.
Under the terms of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, the United States provides Japan with protection; in return, Japan provides the United States with a forward presence in Asia. Size and numbers however, make this problematic. Japan is one of the most crowded nations on Earth, and with 121 million people crowded into an area a third of the size of California, land is at a premium.
As Japan gears up to confront a stronger China, funds for expanding and upgrading the Self-Defence Forces will be limited. The current economic crisis, as well as the need to rebuild communities damaged by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, will ensure that any funding increases will be marginal at best. The SDF will need to be able to do more with less.
One cost-effective way to make the SDF more effective is obviously to train existing forces to an extremely high standard. However, Japan currently has limited and often cramped facilities for training combat forces. While the Air Self-Defence Forces have broad swathes of the Pacific to train over, their ability to train over ground is limited by noise issues affecting civilians living on the ground. Due to the lack of space, Ground Self-Defence Forces, meanwhile, have limited options in training large ground unit formations.
A solution to the training problem is to move the training grounds all the way across the Pacific, to the United States. The US has plentiful land for training air and ground forces. Such an arrangement, in which Japanese forces train on the American mainland, would suit both parties and could usher in a new era for the alliance.
There are many advantages to such an arrangement. For one, much of the terrain in the US Pacific Northwest is similar to Japanese terrain. GSDF training, for example, might be undertaken at Fort Lewis, Washington. The Pacific Northwest, with its extensive mountains, forests and rivers is similar to northern Japan, particularly Hokkaido. Likewise, southern Japan is in some ways similar to southern California.
The SDF have crossed the Pacific to train before. Heavy mechanized units of the GSDF have trained at Fort Lewis, while more recently the Western Army Infantry Regiment travelled to Camp Pendleton, California to conduct joint amphibious exercises with the US Marine Corps. Aircraft of the ASDF regularly travel to Alaska to compete in the US Air Force’s annual Red Flag tournament. The difference between the current system and the proposed one is that an arrangement for training SDF forces in the United States would be formalized and permanent.
Under such a system Japanese training and maintenance personnel would establish a permanent presence in the United States. No Japanese combat forces would be permanently based abroad. Ideally, Japanese forces would rotate into US-based training facilities from Japan for periods of weeks or months. For example, a mechanized infantry battalion might rotate into Fort Lewis, where it could participate in a variety of training exercises designed to teach combat and disaster relief capability. Such a movement would only require the transport of personnel; sets of vehicles and equipment would be permanently stationed in the United States. The process of rotating Japanese units to the United States would be similar to that run by the US Army at the National Training Centre, where entire combat battalions are rotated to the southern California desert to undergo realistic training.
Is there a precedent for this sort of bilateral arrangement? Yes. Singapore and Germany, countries also short on space to train, already train their air forces in the United States. Both maintain hardware and personnel in the United States, co-located at American bases, on a permanent basis. Much as the Singaporean Air Force trains at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho and the Luftwaffe trains at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, the Air Self Defence Force might decide to co-locate training at a United States air force base or naval air station. Candidates might include Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina or Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, particularly if the Ministry of Defence picks the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the F-X programme.
Training Japanese ground and air units in the United States would also expand opportunities for bilateral field training, particularly in the area of company and battalion-level joint exercises. Exercises such as these have been difficult to conduct due to the lack of US ground forces on the Japanese mainland, and vice-versa. Joint training such as this would be invaluable should Japanese and US forces ever have to operate together on the battlefield.
Such a setup would benefit the United States in several ways. An obvious benefit, particularly in the coming decade of defence austerity, is having well trained military allies. In times when US and Japanese forces must work together, joint training done in the United States will ease any friction and interoperability issues the two might have during wartime.
US and Japanese forces train together frequently, and as a result are more familiar with one another than most. That said, there are issues to be overcome to working together. There are obvious ones, such as the difference in language and culture. But below that, Japanese and US forces often do things differently, as a US Marine Corps colonel in charge of a Marine Expeditionary Unit exercising with Japanese forces told me recently. Some issues, like language, can’t be changed overnight. But others, such as an understanding of how the other side works and approaches problems, can be learned much more quickly. Greater familiarity on both sides with the other would improve battlefield interoperability and effectiveness.
Flowing Japanese troops into the United States will also have local benefits, affecting communities nearby US bases. A regular influx of Japanese troops, all with disposable income and on for many what would be their first trip to the United States, would be a welcome sight. Each training rotation would bring fresh waves of SDF personnel and their money to be spent in nearby communities. Such an influx would be particularly welcome in US communities hit by military base realignments.
Another positive effect of training overseas is that it would get more Japanese out of Japan and into the world. The growing insularity of Japanese from the rest of the world is well documented, and a serious issue for a country that needs to stay connected to the global system for its economic prosperity. Perhaps more so than in many other countries, living in Japan tends to make it harder to realistically conceptualize the wider world. Regular rotations of the SDF would take more Japanese out of the country, and force them to think about Japan within a global context.
An arrangement in which Japan permanently bases some SDF personnel in the United States could also help ameliorate the perception in Japan that, with regards to military basing, the US-Japan relationship is one-sided. US forces initially came to Japan as occupiers, and although the relationship has since changed, for some, the perception of occupation remains. Basing even some SDF in the United States would signal the end of that era and the beginning of a new one.
Kyle Mizokami is a contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, and the founder of Japan Security Watch.