US Forces Japan Set for Command Change: Who Will Lead?

US Forces Japan

In early June, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made a notable comment to reporters: the Pentagon is contemplating the assignment of a four-star general to command US Forces Japan (USFJ). Currently, a three-star general holds this position. This development has sparked considerable discussion regarding its potential impact and significance.

A friend recently asked me about the implications of such a move. On the surface, installing a four-star general instead of a three-star might seem like a significant change. However, if the goal is to enhance the ability to fight (and win) a war, with or without our Japanese allies, the number of stars doesn’t make much difference. What USFJ truly needs is a robust structure, ample resources, dedicated forces, command authority, and a clear mission to be a formidable warfighting command.

Simply put, upgrading the rank of the commander doesn’t inherently improve USFJ’s warfighting capabilities. What’s crucial is the establishment of a comprehensive structure that includes all the necessary elements to make USFJ a potent force. Without these, it doesn’t matter if the commander is a four-star, three-star, or any other rank.

Presently, USFJ often finds itself in a position where its primary role is to apologize to the Japanese government whenever US troops misbehave. Additionally, it serves as an intermediary, passing messages between Tokyo and the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) headquarters in Honolulu. This role, while diplomatically significant, doesn’t necessarily contribute to the military effectiveness needed in a potential conflict.

From a Japanese perspective, having a four-star general as the USFJ commander could be seen as a sign of increased importance and commitment from the United States. This perception stems from the fact that the immediate Japanese counterpart at the soon-to-be-activated Japan Self-Defense Force’s (JSDF) Permanent Joint Headquarters will be a four-star general. Japan is set to establish this Permanent Joint Headquarters by March 2025, which will oversee and coordinate the operations of the JSDF’s Ground, Maritime, and Air components.

In the realm of military symbolism, rank can carry significant weight. A four-star general might suggest that the United States places a higher priority on its military relationship with Japan than a three-star general would. In the world of generals and admirals, the influence of a four-star often surpasses that of a three-star significantly.

However, while symbolism is important, it doesn’t win wars. The ultimate goal is to prepare and equip USFJ to be an effective fighting force. If an adversary knows they will lose a conflict, they are less likely to initiate one in the first place. This concept, known as deterrence, is crucial.

A record of success is another vital consideration. The excitement surrounding the possibility of appointing a four-star general to USFJ warrants a logical question: which US flag officer has led or participated in a successful campaign beyond the tactical level in the last twenty-plus years? The answer is, unfortunately, not many. Only a few names come to mind, such as Lieutenant General Ben Hodges and Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, both now retired, who have notably questioned the lack of success in recent military campaigns.

Therefore, Tokyo or anyone else shouldn’t get too excited about Secretary Austin’s comments. It’s essential to consider the track record of the commanders and their effectiveness in previous roles. For example, as the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), Austin oversaw an effort to create a Syrian resistance force to fight Islamic State terrorists. This initiative ended up costing half a billion dollars with little to show for it. Despite this, such a performance in today’s military often leads to further promotions and prestigious appointments.

Japan should take note of these dynamics and work on further enhancing JSDF capabilities. It should also work towards overcoming its heavy reliance on US forces for its national defense. The current USINDOPACOM commander, Admiral Samuel Paparo, is reputed to have a more warfighting-oriented mentality compared to some of his predecessors. There are indications that serious thought is being given to the USFJ issue beyond the matter of rank, although progress might not be as rapid as desired.

Japan could also benefit from clearly communicating its expectations and desires to the United States regarding the role of USFJ and its operational relationship with US forces in Asia. Clear and open communication can help ensure that both nations are on the same page and working towards common goals.

There are many capable officers within the US military. However, it can be challenging to identify and promote those who are genuinely serious about their roles and not merely playing the political game. It’s essential to find an officer who is dedicated to the mission, equipped with the right resources and authority, and focused on fighting rather than being a politician in uniform.

Ultimately, the number of stars on a general’s shoulder should be a secondary consideration. What matters most is the individual’s capability, experience, and dedication to the mission. If appointing a four-star general helps in any way, then it should be done. However, the primary focus should be on ensuring that the commander, regardless of rank, has what they need to effectively lead USFJ and enhance its warfighting capabilities.

In conclusion, the potential appointment of a four-star general to command US Forces Japan is a significant development, but it should not be viewed as a solution in itself. The true measure of success will be in the structural, resource, and mission-related enhancements that accompany this change. Japan and the United States must work together to ensure that USFJ is a formidable force capable of deterring and, if necessary, winning conflicts in the region. Only then can the full potential of this strategic partnership be realized.

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