Effects of Pentagon Budget Cuts Not Clearly Conveyed to Japanese Allies

By Valerie Insinna

Budget cuts are unlikely to affect the U.S. military’s ability to carry out its strategy in the Asia-Pacific, but the United States has not done a particularly good job of communicating that fact to the Japanese government, said a new report released Jan. 13 by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The United States and Japan need closer collaboration on defense matters, particularly on how both countries’ fiscal situations could impact their military alliance, said the Stimson Center report, titled, “Opportunity Out of Necessity: The Impact of U.S. Defense Budget Cuts on the U.S.-Japan Alliance."

“There is a considerable level of frustration among Japanese defense officials about the lack of communication from the U.S. on its long-term strategy,” said Yuki Tatsumi, author of the report and senior associate of the Stimson Center’s East Asia program. “A great deal of confusion exists in Japan regarding how some key U.S. operational concepts … apply in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Much has been made of the U.S. military’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, but such rhetoric has done little to assuage Japanese policymakers’ concerns about China’s rapid military modernization and North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities, said the report. The Pentagon’s shrinking budget has only increased Japanese worries that the United States may not be able to sustain its commitment to the region.  

U.S. officials must be more forthright about how the declining Pentagon budget will effect its military alliance with Japan, Tatsumi said. “The U.S. needs to keep emphasizing that it intends to sustain its engagement in the Asia-Pacific region even if budgets vary” and that “it wants Japan to be an essential partner in that endeavor.”

Meanwhile, “Japan should pay greater attention to how the anticipated defense budget reductions may affect the U.S. acquisition programs that are important to Japan. Cuts in U.S. defense spending are unlikely to have an immediate impact on the existing U.S. military capability forward-deployed to Japan and in the broader Asia-Pacific region,” the report said.

The Defense Department’s Asia-Pacific strategy will not be severely hindered by budget cuts, said Tatsumi. One reason is that much of the equipment that will contribute to the “pivot” has already been purchased. That equipment will be sustained through operations and maintenance accounts, which historically are less likely to be cut than funding for procurement and military personnel, she said.

However, if the Pentagon is called on to make even larger cuts than are currently anticipated, funding could be chopped from procurement of prioritized programs such as Virginia-class attack submarines or the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker. It may also trim funding for research-and-development programs, the report said.

Cuts to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program would have the most impact on Japan because all three variants of the aircraft are planned to be flown from U.S. bases in that country, she said. Japan is also purchasing 42 F-35As to replace its F-4 aircraft.

However, changing the F-35 program, while strategically important in the long-term, would have no immediate impact on U.S. capability to implement its Asia-Pacific strategy, she said. The Air Force’s F-22 fleet and Navy’s upgraded F-18 Super Hornets would be able to take on missions in the region in the near term.

Any delays or cuts to the program will likely have a stronger impact on Japan’s modernization plans, she said. “The Japanese wonder whether the F-35 block 3F, the aircraft it’s buying, will be ready for delivery by the  [2017] deadline. The concerns for cost unit increase are even greater.”

The Japanese government historically has relied on the U.S. military for ballistic missile defense. North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development programs have intensified Japan’s concerns about budget cuts to such programs, Tatsumi said.

Even if the United States greatly cuts its missile defense budget, “it would  have a very limited impact on Japan,” she said. The Aegis systems on U.S. and Japanese destroyers would be an important defense against a North Korean missile threat. That system has already been fielded and is  expected to draw large investment in the 2014 budget.

One challenge to greater collaboration is that, in both countries, the budget process is domestic. “Statements intended for domestic audiences  often raise concerns abroad,” Tatsumi said.

Sequestration also played a negative role to the U.S.-Japan relationship, as Pentagon and U.S. military leaders traveled to the region with smaller delegations, or were not able to attend defense conferences where interaction with their Japanese counterparts is expected, the report said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to increase defense spending will likely go unheeded, Tatsumi believes. Like the United States, Japan is encountering a constrained budget environment. Because there is less public support for boosting defense spending in Japan, it is improbable that Japan will grow it beyond the 1 percent of gross domestic product currently spent.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, DOD Policy

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