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Rethinking Japan's national security through a ride on an F-15 (part two)

February 24, 2015  Nori Katagiri

Last month, Dr. Nori Katagiri, a professor at the United States Air Force Air War College, wrote about his ride in a Japanese F-15 fighter jet and the insights into Japan's national security gleaned from this experience. In this month's conclusion, he considers the Japanese public's perception of their Self Defense Forces and examines the SDF's relationship with foreign languages, opining that they are more important than ever as an increasing number of SDF personnel are dispatched overseas following the murder of Japanese citizens in Syria.

A single F-15 flight takes much effort, resources, support, and preparation from staff devoted to their missions. (Photo credits: author)

In last month's column I discussed two main topics. First, I suggested how little the general public knows about the hard work of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) personnel. There are several reasons why there is peace in Japan, and one of them is that the SDF has functioned relatively well within the existing framework. Second, I showed that a single F-15 flight takes much effort, resources, support, and preparation from staff devoted to their missions. A mission gets completed precisely because these things function the way they are supposed to.

My F-15 flight experience boosted my understanding of the Japan Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF). It took a professor of international security studies out of the classroom, gave him a rare glimpse into the tactics and operations of F-15 fighter aircraft, and taught him how important it is to the achievement of JASDF missions to maintain personal health and effective coordination mechanisms.

In this article, I will discuss Japanese defense affairs from a broader perspective than the previous article. Specifically, I will explore what the experience may suggest for the general public, the relationship between the public and SDF, and foreign language education for the SDF.

What the experience may suggest

SDF personnel I talked to on this occasion told me that it is rare to have a civilian working for a foreign government fly like I did. The US military is Japan’s treaty ally, but is still a foreign military. The JASDF showed me as much as possible in the process, including the training facilities at Iruma Base and a control tower at Hyakuri Base.

Does the United States do anything like this? Those who visit US air bases know that, under the Space Available Travel policy, authorized civilians can be allowed to board military aircraft, such as KC-135 cargo aircraft. But it is rare to fly civilians in a fighter aircraft. In what we call "familiarization flights," major politicians like governors are occasionally seen experiencing this type of flight.

Control tower at Hyakuri Base.
Air War College members boarding a cargo aircraft.

Public support and understanding of the SDF

In the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of movies and books about Japanese national security, as well as growing media attention for social events involving SDF personnel. In short, the "distance" between the general public and SDF has shortened over the years. This is not surprising, given the fact that Japanese sovereignty has been threatened by neighbors flexing their muscles along its borders. The SDF, in return, has an obligation to meet the public’s expectations if it desires to keep this rising popularity.

But it is important to know what the public really expects of the SDF. A recent public opinion survey (in Japanese) demonstrates that more Japanese expect the SDF to carry out disaster rescue missions than they do national defense. There is no question that disaster relief operations are an important part of the SDF’s work, especially in light of the March 11, 2011, triple crisis (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown) as well as the occasional earthquakes felt across the Japanese archipelago. So naturally, there are some experts in Japan who call for the shrinking of SDF roles and the remake of the SDF to assume a global disaster rescue mission. Other experts even argue that Japan’s culture dictates that the SDF be devoted to humanitarian missions.

At the same time, however, it is important to remember that the SDF's main function is first and foremost national defense. It should be expected that the SDF would play a central role in defending the nation and deterring foreign threats.

How should the general public support the SDF then? Of course, there should be more enthusiasm among the population to support the SDF’s missions. But more importantly, the general public should become more interested in international security affairs, get better educated on these matters, and deepen their appreciation of the importance of national security resources and the SDF’s roles.

So what impact will the recent tragedy involving the two Japanese hostages have on the SDF’s future? In the wake of this tragedy, this is one of the most-asked questions in my graduate seminar here at Air War College. Students in my course on Northeast Asia in particular seem to be curious about how the alleged beheading of the Japanese civilians would affect the present and future of Japan’s military.

As the debate continues in Nagatacho, we can expect changes to take place in existing legal frameworks for the use of the SDF in future hostage situations and for SDF deployment overseas. We can also reasonably expect the Japanese government to strengthen its anti-terrorism cooperation with Western nations. Yet it is important to note that those changes would only amount to the necessary minimum and exclude missions like attacking terror groups in places like Iraq and Syria. The SDF is unlikely to undergo drastic reform and dramatically boost its popularity among the Japanese public as a direct result of this. A much larger incident would be required for the SDF to become truly normal.

The SDF and foreign languages

The F-15 flight also gave me a chance to think about the relationship between the SDF and foreign languages. According to the fighter pilots I spoke with at Hyakuri, fighter pilots may encounter a situation where they must give verbal warnings in English, Chinese, or Russian to pilots of foreign aircraft when the latter approach Japanese air space and need to leave. Japanese pilots receive basic instruction in foreign languages. In fact, when I was flying in an F-15, the pilot of another F-15 approached us and gave us a warning in English before rocking his wings.

Yet the pilots will not converse with the other aircraft’s pilot. Even if the other pilot responded in their native tongue, the Japanese side will not respond; perhaps because the pilot is unlikely to understand what was said. But I would argue that it would perhaps be helpful if the Japanese pilot understood the language.

The relationship between the SDF and foreign languages is inevitable. To reflect the globalizing nature of world events, Japan's Defense Academy is strengthening foreign language instruction. The SDF's service staff colleges accept exchange students from its foreign counterparts. Every year the JASDF sends some of its young pilots to Texas and Colorado for fighter training and to study English before they come home.

The SDF officers that I interact with at Air War College speak English well, work with their foreign counterparts, and engage in discussion with their American colleagues. In the last few years, JASDF representatives here at Maxwell Air Force Base have conducted verbal presentations about Japan in front of large audiences. At times, I am astounded to find SDF general officers who speak English almost like a native. When I take my students to Japan and visit SDF staff colleges and the Ministry of Defense, the briefers there speak English well and we carry out discussions in English. But once I walk out of this circle of elite personnel, all of a sudden I feel that foreign language is in quite short supply in the SDF ranks.

How to carry out foreign language education

Although fully aware that English is the language of the world, most Japanese find it hard to master it. It is in part because Japanese is far different from English and because it takes a lot of time and discipline for a Japanese student to study and stay in an environment where one would be constantly exposed to the language. For those living in Japan, such an environment is a luxury. On the other hand, it is also true that not all SDF members need to speak English well. After all, the fundamental role of SDF personnel is national defense, not diplomacy or learning foreign languages.

But it is important to remember that foreign language and national defense are not mutually exclusive. Globalization requires people to acquire the capability to do well overseas. It is likely that the SDF will continue to increase their interactions with foreign armed forces and need to know local languages to conduct business like acquisition and purchasing. As such, SDF personnel need to see foreign language education and defense work as being in a mutually beneficial relationship. I am quite certain that military officers in countries that consider English education important generally consider language capability to be a weapon, not a liability.

There will be many SDF personnel who will be sent overseas as defense attaches at Japanese embassies, as local liaison officers at military facilities across the world, and as negotiators on matters related to military cooperation and alliance management with the United States. Especially in light of the recent hostage tragedy in the Middle East, it would be reasonable to expect that Japan will increase the number of SDF personnel sent overseas to collect intelligence on terrorism matters and strengthen cooperation with other countries.

Foreign language capability will certainly strengthen the SDF. It will help Japan's national security policy, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to be a dominant player, to reflect the nature of international politics better than before. It will also allow Japan to strengthen the SDF's presence overseas and to work with other actors more effectively on the international stage.

The views expressed here belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air War College.

The author has a doctorate in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, has researched counter-terrorism and strategic communications at RAND Corporation, and currently teaches at the United States Air Force Air War College at Maxwell AFB.

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