New Era of U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Sparks Debate (UPDATED)

By Allyson Versprille

By Allyson Versprille

The United States and Japan in April approved new guidelines for defense cooperation between the two nations, but questions remain on who will actually benefit from the relationship and whether the guidelines will have a lasting impact.

Japan for decades abided by a strict ban on the export of arms implemented amidst the tension of the Cold War era.  In 2014 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration relaxed the self-imposed restrictions to allow the export of arms in situations that support national security and international cooperation as well as the joint development and production of defense equipment — a major shift in the country's traditionally pacifistic stance. The move was an attempt to fortify partnerships with allies and strengthen the domestic defense industry. Japan will continue to refrain from selling arms to countries in conflict where the United Nations is trying to negotiate peace, or if the sale violates treaty obligations and UN embargoes.

There are clear advantages for the United States when it comes to cooperating with Japan, but the reverse is not necessarily so, one analyst said May 7. The U.S. military has historically been reluctant to share technological data with its allies.  ??

"We have not put the bandwidth, the intellectual capability and the funding in developing true coalition capabilities with our partners. Coalition war fighting in the 21st century is not pick-up basketball at the gym," said Jeffrey Bialos, former deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial affairs in the Clinton administration. 

U.S. reluctance to transfer technology to partners will put a damper on cooperative efforts with Japan, he said. "We don't share the technology and the technological data needed to really enhance high-level interoperability."

While conceptually, Japan opening up weapon exports to allies should lead to more efficiency and cost-savings for the nation, he doesn't see any major programs coming out of the new guidelines.

The agreement doesn’t obligate either government to draft legislation or create executive orders, he said during a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, D.C., think tank.??

"They're guidelines, not laws, not rules, not treaties. It's a framework and the question is, 'What's going to be done in practice?' ...  And that's the challenge over the years for sustaining and fostering that framework," Bialos said.

The cooperative guidelines do have potential advantages for both militaries, especially the Pentagon, which is currently pushing an innovation initiative, said the panelists.

"The defense innovation initiative and … emphasis on developing future technologies fits very well with a lot of Japanese strengths in technology, development and industry," said James Schoff, a senior associate in Carnegie's Asia program. These strengths include energy storage, advanced manufacturing, robotics and artificial intelligence. "It just seems natural … [that] we try to leverage some of these strengths together with American strengths and develop aligned solutions."

From a Japanese perspective, the country stands to benefit from more efficient procurement and lower unit costs, said the panelists.

When licensing items, the unit cost for products in Japan is typically two to four times what the unit cost would be elsewhere because every part is being produced in small quantities, said Kyosuke Matsumoto, political counselor at the Embassy of Japan. By opening exports to allies, Japan can produce much larger quantities at a better cost, he said. ?

Recently, the Department of State approved a potential $3 billion sale to Japan for 17 V-22 Ospreys and associated equipment, which is awaiting approval by Congress.

"That is a traditional [foreign military sale] but there are aspects of that that I think will be different from sales in the past where the sustainment was mostly from the U.S.," said Jeffrey Bloom, the Pacific team lead in the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. The sale is not going to lead to licensed production in Japan, and is thus more of the traditional, pre-defense cooperation guidelines approach. However, there is a real opportunity for joint sustainment of the aircraft, he said.

"The real money in something like the F-35 or V-22 is not necessarily on putting it together. It's on keeping it together for another 30 years," Bloom said. "And I think there are lots of opportunities there — for teaming, joint ventures, common maintenance in Japan — and that's a major theme in the guidelines — encouraging common sustainment."

Matsumoto said Japan is proposing a new maintenance facility in the region for common assets such as the V-22 and F-35.

Bialos said the V-22 foreign military sale is not necessarily an "old approach." Rather, "it's the future approach because the first principle of acquisition — whether it's Japan or the United States — is value for money ... It would make no sense, whatsoever, to develop a joint program to develop an alternative to the V-22 Osprey, which took us 15 to 20 years, tons of money and lots of problems along the way to develop."

Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that Japan will now export arms to countries in conflict. That statement has been clarified to say that it will continue to refrain from selling arms to countries in conflict where the United Nations is trying to negotiate peace.

Topics: International, Procurement

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