At the urging of National Security Advisor John Bolton, President Trump is reportedly considering withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, a landmark agreement heralded as the first U.S.-Soviet arms-control pact that brought about the elimination of an entire class of weapons rather than simply a cap on deployment numbers. Though the immediate, ostensible reason for withdrawal is a series of Russian violations of the treaty, the strategic locus of the decision seems to be China. Indeed, few of the present calls for withdrawal argue for renewed deployments of the Pershing II, the intermediate-range nuclear weapons system which was the nemesis of the Soviet SS-20 during the 1980s; rather, the motivation is to free the United States to develop intermediate-range systems to counter China’s vast and sophisticated conventional missile arsenal. Proponents of INF withdrawal have made several compelling arguments that deserve earnest engagement: that withdrawal will be beneficial for the security of the United States and its allies, allow the United States to steady the military balance in East Asia, and allow a more cost-effective solution for countering Chinese anti-access/area denial capabilities.
Key to the implementation of this strategy is Japan. It is home to the most extensive U.S. basing structure in Asia, the only forward-deployed aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy fleet, and a powerful military of its own. It is no mystery why Chinese missile test ranges are designed to mimic the fortifications of Japanese bases. Japan’s geography usually functions as a force multiplier, boosting the effectiveness of the units stationed there, in this case its location just off the Asia mainland means that U.S. and Japanese bases fall within range of scores of Chinese intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles. Few countries face a more dire intermediate missile threat. Hence as the United States considers its next steps post-INF withdrawal, it will be critical to maintain a deep awareness of how withdrawal will impact Japan’s security, the integrity of the alliance, and Japanese domestic politics.
It is no mystery why Chinese missile test ranges are designed to mimic the fortifications of Japanese bases
Chief among the assumptions of INF withdrawal advocates is that Japan will willingly host significant numbers of intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) or tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs), the most likely post-INF munitions that the United States would field. A recent paper by Scott Cuomo in the Texas National Security Review pointed to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s comments on the prospect of U.S. withdrawal from INF as evidence that Japan would willingly host GLCMs and TBMs. Suga’s tepid words aside, the central government is likely to view INF withdrawal as a major strain on the alliance. Because the missiles would be launched from transporter erector launchers (TELs), the systems would qualify as new weapons under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and their placement would require host nation notification and prior consultation negotiations with the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Even rotational deployment would require a period of negotiation and discussion, consuming bandwidth and resources in MOFA, MOD, and the Prime Minister’s office. This new period of negotiations would begin amidst other U.S.-instigated tensions in the alliance, namely the negotiations on the Trade Agreement on Goods and the omnipresent threat of U.S. tariffs on Japanese auto imports. In the context of these contentious talks, it is difficult to see how the Japanese government would willingly sacrifice political capital to go to bat for an unpopular U.S. proposal.
The Japanese government will already have its hands full with security issues through 2019. The Abe administration seems intent on pressing ahead on revision to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, a contentious political issue that will require Abe to sell his proposal first to the membership of his Liberal Democratic Party, then their coalition partners Komeito, the Diet at large, and eventually the Japanese people. Polling suggests that any margin of passage in an eventual referendum would likely be razor thin; a national debate over new U.S. weapon deployments would do nothing to help Abe’s cause.
The government has also just released the new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), the foundational document of Japan’s defense policy. The NDPG calls for boosts in the power projection capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces in contentious ways, from the construction of Japan’s first true postwar aircraft carriers to the purchase of long-range cruise missiles capable of “enemy base strike” (teki kichi kōgeki) ability. Further changes to the organization of the SDF, like the establishment of a space command and the formation of a standing Joint Staff Office, will require delicate inter-service negotiations. Injecting another variable into the security equation could very well unbalance the delicate political calculus of the Abe administration and derail these major U.S.-supported reforms.
There is also nothing to suggest that there is any support for hosting GLCMs and TBMs from the other relevant party in this question – the Okinawan prefectural government. The people of Okinawa and their local government pay close attention to U.S. and Japanese military mishaps on their territory; emergency landings, fallen windows, and vehicle accidents all make front page news. The recent election of governor Denny Tamaki, a staunch advocate of reducing Okinawa’s disproportionate share of U.S. bases, means that even if the Japanese central government were to agree to GLCM and TBM deployments, the prefectural government would likely throw up every obstacle it could muster; a scant 14 percent of Okinawans “value” the U.S. bases, giving the prefectural leaders significant political cover. The 20-year Futenma base relocation debacle illustrates just how great a thorn the Okinawa government can be in the side of the alliance authorities in Tokyo and Washington, DC. Given sensitivities to accidents happening near or on U.S. and Japanese military bases, it is hard to imagine how the Okinawan government would readily accept the deployment of new weapons that, in a conflict, are expressly designed to motor away from the confines of their bases and fight from more furtive surroundings.
It is hard to imagine how the Okinawan government would accept the deployment of new weapons expressly designed to leave their bases and fight from the surroundings
On a purely tactical level, stationing GLCMs and TBMs could end up creating more problems for Japanese security than it solves. While withdrawal advocates make a compelling point when noting that the introduction of U.S. intermediate-range missiles into Japan would severely complicate Chinese targeting efforts, such deployments would also bring serious risks to Japanese security. Reliance on rotational deployments would mean that activating GLCM/TBM brigades in a crisis would introduce huge chains of supply, with dozens of U.S. transport aircraft landing at Kadena air base before transiting elsewhere in Okinawa prefecture. These massive supply chains would undoubtedly involve aircraft and ships, the very same platforms that withdrawal advocates have identified as being particularly vulnerable. This claim has been echoed in Japanese-language strategic thinking on INF withdrawal. Ensuring that the systems could reload in battle would mean further negotiations to create pre-placed munitions stocks.
The end result could be perhaps five or six TELs with eight missiles apiece, a paltry amount compared to the hundreds of intermediate cruise and ballistic missiles in the arsenal of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. Such a small number of weapons is unlikely to palpably affect the military balance, and if the United States continues with development of a nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile, Chinese early warning operators could mistake U.S. GLCMs as nuclear-tipped weapons.
Finally, U.S. GLCM deployment would only further institutionalize the division of alliance labor that the United States has for years sought to shift. Japanese security planners are sure to argue that U.S. intermediate missiles, even in small numbers, further obviate the need for Japan to develop power projection and enemy base strike capabilities. The result would be counter to the trend of decades of revisions to the U.S. alliance guidelines that has seen the SDF pushed to act farther away from Japan and with more tactical and strategic flexibility.
Stationing intermediate missiles would entrench a division of alliance labor the United States insists must change
As various factions within the U.S. government debate the wisdom of withdrawal from INF, Japan and the alliance are likely to come under strain from a U.S. departure. Trade tensions that the United States has linked to security concerns together with the small tactical gains of GLCM/TBM deployment means that there is little incentive for the central or Okinawan governments to lay down precious political capital for an unpopular U.S. initiative. Stationing intermediate missiles would further entrench a division of alliance labor the United States itself insists must change.
Meanwhile, the United States has a ream of options at its disposal for addressing the intermediate missile challenge. U.S. bureaucrats could use this opportunity to work behind the scenes to build elite consensus around the adoption of a “strike enemy bases” capability, a on-again, off-again proposal that has been “shelved” from the NDPG. The proposal to purchase the long-range cruise missiles necessary for the mission is largely a project of the nascent National Security Secretariat (NSS), and is thus facing pushback from factions within the LDP and defense ministry that see the proposal as “eclipsing” Japan’s fundamental defensive defense doctrine. The United States should work to empower the NSS to push through enemy base strike capability to further U.S.-Japan interoperability and encourage a more equitable division of alliance responsibilities. Building goodwill by working with Japanese defense officials to supercharge already-in-development initiatives and providing political muscle behind the PM-directed NSS would be a subtler and far more effective U.S. strategy rather than withdrawing from INF and launching a highly contentious negotiation on GLCM deployment.
When the United States last considered how best to resolve the INF issue, Japanese diplomacy was instrumental in pushing the Americans to accept a “zero-zero” option; taking Japanese concerns into account by aiming for the global elimination of intermediate range missiles rather than simply pushing them into the Soviet far east. The result was a boon to both Japanese and American security. Embracing Japanese concerns on the INF issue could again produce an outcome that strengthens the alliance, pushes Japan to do more for its own defense, and works toward the security and stability of the region.
Ben Rimland is a program assistant in the Asia program at The German Marshall Fund, where he researches Asia defense issues and coordinates programming and convening on the U.S.-EU-Asia relationship. Previously, he was based at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama. A graduate of both Columbia University (cum laude) and St. Antony's College, University of Oxford (MPhil, modern Japanese studies), his work focuses on the US-Japan alliance, Japan's security posture in Southeast Asia, and the Japanese foreign policy bureaucracy. He is concurrently a young leader at Pacific Forum CSIS.