National consensus needed on the role of Self-Defense Forces in emergencies by OUE Sadamasa

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments in the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API & Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on March 30, 2021:

API Geoeconomic Briefing

March 30, 2021

National consensus needed on the role of Self-Defense Forces in emergencies

OUE Sadamasa, Senior Fellow, Asia Pacific Initiative (API),
Lieutenant General, Japan Air Self-Defense Force (Ret.)




Ten years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and the subsequent disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and now Japan is in the midst of a struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The common thread is that the Self-Defense Forces have been dispatched for all of these crises.

The Asia Pacific Initiative think tank has made assessments of these crises and made proposals based on precious lessons drawn from the incidents. But has the nation itself made good use of such lessons? Perhaps to a degree, but it is necessary to review the nation’s risk management system under the worst case scenario and build a national consensus on how to utilize the SDF in such cases.

Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, API’s predecessor, issued a report in 2013 simulating worst-case scenarios for nine potential national crises such as a military clash around the Senkaku Islands, a cyberterrorist attack, the collapse of North Korea and nuclear terrorism.

The SDF are expected to be the last resort in such crises, highly trusted by the public for their past disaster relief operations.

But the SDF is only one means to cope with national crises, and the most important factor in those worst situations is political leadership that brings together all available tools, including diplomacy, economy and information.

Japan, frequently hit by natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons, has from time to time worked to strengthen its risk management and raise disaster prevention awareness among its citizens based on past experience.

However, regarding crises that are yet to happen, the nation appears to avoid imagining the worst so much that it is now entrapped in thinking that it will never occur.

Facing the worst case scenario comes with huge stress, and changing the existing norms and systems applied in normal times for situations that no one knows if or when will happen meets with great resistance.

But things that cannot easily be done now will definitely be impossible in those worst-case situations.


False pretense

It is said that in a time of crisis, the law falls silent.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the SDF conducted various tasks outside their missions set under the SDF law, including searching for missing people, recovering bodies and spraying water from helicopters and from the ground.

There were even cases in which SDF officers were ordered to command police officers and firefighters.

However, there are limits to the tasks which can be assigned to the SDF by expanding the interpretation of the administrative law.

The government is yet to designate who will risk their lives to encase a nuclear power plant in concrete in case a nuclear meltdown cannot be stopped. But the government cannot order the SDF to conduct the task by expanding its interpretation of the existing law.

This could lead to a false pretense that the SDF can be ordered to do anything to cope with a worst-case scenario.

To secure civilian control of the SDF, it is necessary to re-examine the legal system from the viewpoint of emergency preparedness — including the lack of a state of emergency clause in the Constitution — through simulating such scenarios.

Japan’s worst-case scenario is becoming ever more serious and complex.

North Korean missiles carrying nuclear warheads have enough range to strike Japan, and Pyongyang’s cyberattack capabilities cannot be underestimated.

There could be a case in which cyberterrorism, the collapse of North Korea and nuclear terrorism all occur at the same time.

Meanwhile, China has significantly boosted the capabilities of its marine corps and its law enforcement agency, and has normalized maritime operations intruding into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands.

A new Chinese law that went into effect on Feb. 1 allows the China Coast Guard to use force against foreign vessels for what Beijing views as violations of its sovereignty and jurisdictional waters.

This is a clear violation of international law, but it is being seen as a Chinese measure toward claiming administrative rights over the islets.

The risk of a military confrontation around the Senkaku Islands is growing slowly but steadily.

It is also necessary to prepare for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which could come together with a conflict over the Senkakus.


Sense of crisis

In reality, though, it is difficult to actually simulate such situations.

Unlike natural disasters or pandemics, such crises are affected by intentions and deliberate actions taken by the countries involved, and things can change for the better or worse depending on their policies.

In a situation in which the interests of different countries intertwine in a complex way, Japan needs to make a highly political decision in determining what kind of missions should be assigned to the SDF to protect the nation’s sovereignty and its people, and how much can be sacrificed as a result.

Therefore, it is important that such inquiries for worst-case scenarios should be conducted officially with all responsible parties present.

This is because all of those involved in coping with emergencies should share the sense of crisis, including the pain of feeling it approach and the fear of facing the worst possible situation.

By doing so, they can confirm the actual problems concerning discrepancies and gaps between different organizations.

Furthermore, by improving the risk management abilities of high-ranking officials, it becomes possible to beef up the government’s emergency response capability as a whole.

For instance, officials can learn firsthand that in a crisis, situations change from hour to hour and things are controlled under rules totally different from normal times, since ultimate decisions must be made within a limited time frame.

There are a number of issues that need to be checked to allow for coping with a variety of crises: which interests or goals should be prioritized; which means should be utilized in what ways; where the prime minister should be positioned to lead the government’s emergency response; who should take over the prime minister’s right to command the SDF in case something happens to the prime minister; how the tasks should be coordinated or divided between the Cabinet Office’s risk management divisions and the Defense Ministry’s Joint Staff Office; and whether means and procedures to relay and share information will function properly. Some of these issues need to be considered at the same time, in conjunction with each other.

The government and its officials must therefore clarify the current legal and administrative systems and be trained on how they can be operated.

If necessary, they should create new legislation and infrastructure, as well as explaining to the public the results of the clarification, so that measures will be taken including conducting regular training.


Coordinate interests

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the SDF and the U.S. military conducted a joint operation for the first time.

Operation Tomodachi, the relief effort mounted by U.S. forces in the aftermath of the disaster, worked well thanks to joint drills which had been conducted previously by the two nations. But as for the response to the nuclear meltdowns, it became clear that there are limits to the two nations’ alliance, considering the differences in their national interests and in the code of conduct regarding radiation.

After that, the guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation were revised and new security legislation took effect, but Japan and the United States are yet to hold discussions about a worst-case scenario concerning North Korea or China.

The SDF and the U.S. military have been holding joint drills — actual-troop exercises or command post exercises — every year to improve joint military operational capabilities in times of emergency.

Concerning cooperation between the SDF and the U.S. military, which became an issue regarding nuclear disaster response, an alliance coordination group was created with the participation of the Cabinet Secretariat, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry. But it is yet to be decided how other government ministries and politicians will be involved.

In cases of crises that could result in military confrontations, it is important for the whole government to tackle the issues in order to work as a liaison between politics and the military, including assessing situations based on their circumstances and assigning missions to the SDF, as well as issuing strategic messages and coping with the situations geoeconomically.

It is also indispensable for the government to coordinate interests with the U.S. and come up with a shared goal toward which the joint operation should be directed.

The U.S. has established a system on the presupposition that anything could happen — including the worst-case scenario of a nuclear war — but it has been forced to ask its allies for increased burden-sharing due to its relative decline in power accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.


On the front line

“The United States, China, and Taiwan: A Strategy to Prevent War,” a report by the Council on Foreign Relations released in February, urges U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to work with its allies, especially Japan, to prepare new plans that could challenge Chinese military moves against Taiwan.

Coping with the risk of conflict over Taiwan will become the most important and difficult challenge for the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Japan must come up with a strategy based on U.S.-style thinking of logically examining what could happen in case of military conflict before putting it into practice.

The Biden administration has set up a China task force at the Defense Department to review its China policy.

It is not too late for Japan to get involved in it to coordinate a strategy for the worst-case scenario as an ally. The SDF is, after all, an organization preparing for the ultimate crisis — a war.

A public opinion poll conducted by the Cabinet Office in 2018 showed that 79.2% of respondents expect the SDF to serve in disaster relief operations, and more than 60.9% expect the SDF to work for national security and defense.

The result reflects the public’s high evaluation of the SDF’s work in disaster relief efforts, as the SDF is dispatched to various disaster-hit areas, creating a situation in which the organization, which should normally be deployed as a last resort, is working on the front line in peacetime.

However, nobody, including the SDF, the government and the general public, has yet experienced a situation which requires the forces to serve as a last resort to defend the country.

There is no guarantee that the SDF can protect the nation and its people against North Korean nuclear missiles or the massive military force of China.

Therefore, the government is faced with an urgent task of re-examining and revising its risk governance system for potential armed attack situations.

It has to provide the SDF with the necessary resources and time to boost its capabilities for extreme situations.

The government should improve its ability to respond to crises through realistic training under the worst case scenario and raise public awareness at the same time.

To prepare for the worst, reaching a consensus on how to utilize the SDF in unexperienced situations is indispensable.


The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.