Beyond the deep symbolism of President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima later this week, his trip to Vietnam and Japan reflects the sustained US commitment to the rebalance toward the Asia — in all of its economic, political and security dimensions.
Japan, with its new willingness to engage in collective security under Prime Minister Abe, is a linchpin of the US effort to build a strong coalition in the region to address, among other things, the rising threat from China.
Yet, while the United States and Japan last year strengthened our guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation, a lack of tangible progress since then threatens to undermine our progress in building a new Asian regional security framework. Frankly, there is an emerging disconnect between our rhetoric, oral and written, and the expectations they have created, on the one hand, and the challenges we face to make good on our strategic goals, on the other hand, in light of longstanding impediments to cooperation on both sides. We need to make sure that the hard work of cooperation between summits and periodic meetings is as strong as the rhetorical flourishes at summits.
To ensure that the US efforts to build an effective regional security coalition do not fall short, the United States and Japan should take the following strategic actions:
1. The United States should mount a sustained effort with Japan and other Asian partners to build coalition capabilities.The United States has shifted to a threat-based approach for our own force planning that emphasizes among other things the Chinese threat, but has not similarly embarked on a focused, holistic effort to develop coalition capabilities against the range of realistic high- and low-intensity threats we face in the region. While the United States is strongly committed to coalition warfare as a core element of our national security strategy and has regularly participated in coalition efforts, we have been chronically weak at working with allies to address capability gaps and areas of limited interoperability; our efforts are ad hoc and disjointed at best.
Accordingly, the United States should commence a sustained effort with Japan and other select Asian allies to: examine coalition capabilities in a range of likely Asia-Pacific threat scenarios, from low-intensity engagements (tsunamis, humanitarian, insurgencies) to high-intensity scenarios to cyberwarfare; identify overall allied capability gaps/needs and areas where interoperability among allied forces at different levels of capability can be improved in these contingencies; and recommend specific actions to enhance our coalition capabilities (i.e., and those of our partners in particular) and interoperability among forces at different capability levels.
As part of the rebalance, the United States should establish and fund an Asian coalition warfare program at the Defense Department ($100 million per annum in US funding at a minimum, with corresponding contributions from our Asian allies) that can be used for joint research and development to address coalition needs. We should work toward encouraging centers of excellence among our partner nations that can augment US capabilities and help share our security burdens in the region. We also should seek to enhance interoperability through more flexible US national disclosure policies, enhanced training and improved communications (i.e., enabling better, more real time, and sustained utilization of the outputs of national sensors with our allies). This would avoid the “dumbed down” coalition warfare of the past that is a product of our own restrictive policies on information release.
2. The United States should promote bottom-up US-Japan defense industrial cooperation that can bring solutions for the benefit of our war fighters. The dilemma is that forward-leaning language in Section VII of the new bilateral cooperation guidelines have created expectations in Japan that bilateral defense programs will be forthcoming. It states that “[i]n order to enhance interoperability and to promote efficient acquisition and maintenance, the two governments will … cooperate in joint research, development, production, and test and evaluation of equipment and in mutual provision of components of common equipment and services … .” Yet, in reality, few new “top down” bilateral cooperative acquisition programs of significance are likely to emerge due to budgetary constraints and the longstanding US reluctance to engage. This has created a dynamic where Japanese defense firms in particular, already facing some institutional reluctance to engage in international cooperation for fear of possible risks to reputation, are waiting rather than acting.
To jump-start cooperation, senior Defense Department leaders should explicitly and strongly encourage closer “bottom up” defense industrial linkages between Japanese and US industry — from joint ventures to acquisitions to other types of collaborative engagement. At a time when the Pentagon is actively seeking new innovative solutions for our war fighters to ensure our future military dominance or offset, bottom-up cooperation can help to catalyze approaches that draw the enormous innovation and talent of the Japanese commercial sector into the US defense establishment.
In particular, the United States should take tangible steps to get the benefit of cutting-edge Japanese dual-use technology in robotics and others areas for the benefit of the war fighter. For all the efforts of Defense Secretary Ash Carter to closely embrace risky, unproven Silicon Valley start-ups at shark tanks in order to get the best commercial technology for our defense effort (only one out of 10 of which will likely prove a commercial success), it is frankly hard to understand why our defense leadership hasn’t meaningfully reached out to well-known Japanese commercial firms with track records of innovation.
3. Finally, both Japan and the United States need to put in place the enabling environment for improved defense cooperation. The two countries need to sign a long overdue reciprocal procurement memorandum of understanding to remove trade impediments. Japan needs to: fully implement the relaxation of its export policy and streamline its internal licensing system; and put in place a modern system — laws and enforcement mechanisms — to ensure the protection of classified information by its government and its contractors. The United States needs to look inward at its own Defense Department technology release policies and restrictions on foreign participation in our acquisition system and make adjustments to ensure that these Cold War policies comport with our 21st-century coalition building goals in Asia.
These steps are not a panacea, but will constructively advance our ongoing rebalance toward Asia and the enhanced regional security it can bring — not just at, but between, summits and meetings.
Jeff Bialos, a partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, a Washington-based law firm, previously served as deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial affairs.
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