Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 10 June 2024


U.S. Defenses Are Faltering, but Japan Can Help


(5 min)

A member of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force stands guard in Funabashi, Japan, Jan. 18, 2018. Photo: Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press


At an infamous 1993 dinner in Washington, Defense Secretary Les Aspin warned American defense-industry leaders that they should brace for a reduction in the Pentagon’s budget. The Cold War had ended and the country needed to consolidate.

That was true—to a point. Unfortunately, the U.S. drastically overshot the mark. Since the 1990s, the number of prime defense contractors has shrunk from 51 to five. The sector lost an estimated 17,000 companies between 2018 and 2023, and the number of public naval shipyards plummeted from a World War II-era peak of 11 to four today.

Some degree of streamlining made sense after the Cold War. Today’s security situation, however, requires a fundamental rethinking. Within the first two months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. had supplied Kyiv with about a third of America’s Stinger anti-air and Javelin antiarmor missile stockpiles. Washington has since strained to keep up with demand for these and other weapons and to fulfill its pledges to allies.

Developing plans to rebuild our capacity is paramount. America’s global security strategy calls for being prepared to fight in 1½ theaters—meaning to defeat one foe while holding another off. At present, we’d struggle to meet our needs in one. As war rages in the Middle East and Europe and tensions flare in the Indo-Pacific, our military industrial complex has been revealed as the weak link in our strategic posture.

I’ve had a front-row seat to much of this dysfunction and deficiency. Defense firms have failed to meet production schedules and budgets, impeding our ability to deter and defend. Japan is ready to double its production of the Patriot PAC-3 surface-to-air missile system, but supply-chain issues and red tape threaten to delay the project by up to five years.

The U.S. doubtless needs to bolster its defense budgets to counter multiple threats. But more money on top of a broken system won’t suffice. Increased spending won’t bring us any closer, say, to building two nuclear submarines a year, up from 1.2. Two subs a year will remain an elusive goal unless we overhaul our outdated attitudes and approaches.

In any such reform, we must consider how trusted allies like Japan can contribute more. Having revised its policy on arms exports and committing itself to doubling defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product, Japan is assuming more responsibility in its alliance with the U.S. With its superior manufacturing capacity, the country has the potential to supercharge our industries and enhance our readiness.

Japanese defense firms have built a well-earned reputation for producing quality work on time and within budget. I saw this in February, when Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and I toured a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard building a dozen state-of-the-art Mogami-class frigates, and at a tour of the company’s F-35 fighter-jet factory near Nagoya.

President Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida appreciate the urgency of adopting a new approach. In April, they unveiled the Forum on Defense Industrial Cooperation, Acquisition and Sustainment—a series of meetings in Tokyo this week, dedicated to improving our nations’ collaboration on defense. That this forum is taking place less than two months after it was announced illustrates how serious the task is. Advanced missile co-production, aircraft sustainment and ship repair are only a few items on the agenda.

The last topic, ships, will be especially important. China’s naval fleet, underpinned by the world’s largest shipbuilding industry, is expected to grow from more than 370 to 435 by 2030. Japan is well-positioned to serve as a bulwark. Its shipyards could help the U.S. tackle its maintenance backlog, which was more than 4,000 days between 2015 and 2019, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report. Expanding the scope of Japanese shipyards’ repair work would free up American shipyards to focus on new production and enable our warships to remain in the region as a peacetime deterrent or to immediately return to action during conflict.

While the Tokyo forum can’t solve all our defense-industry challenges, it can serve as a blueprint for how to leverage allies’ industrial strengths. Rebuilding America’s readiness for war—and peace—will require determination, adaptability and comprehensive reform.

Patience isn’t my strong suit, but the defense industrial bureaucracy could use a dose of urgency. Business as usual no longer suffices, and there is no time to lose. The credibility of our deterrence and ability to defend our global interests is at stake.

Mr. Emanuel is U.S. ambassador to Japan.


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Appeared in the June 10, 2024, print edition as 'U.S. Defenses Are Faltering, but Japan Can Help'.

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