The Dear Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, has inadvertently added urgency to US plans to realign its military forces in Japan and to the Japanese intent to make their forces more relevant, as the US and Japan seek to increase their capabilities by cooperating more closely.
In the weeks following the North Korean launch of seven missiles into the sea between Korea and Japan on July 4, Lieutenant General Bruce Wright, the US Air Force officer who commands US forces in Japan, said there had been "a monumental change" in Japanese attitudes toward transitions already underway.
Japanese officers, queried separately, agreed.
Before, negotiations had been moving along but had run into obstacles due largely to political pressures within Japan. Opposition focused on local issues such as noise from aircraft, crowding as residential areas grew up around once-remote US bases and cultural misunderstandings between Japanese and Americans in Japan.
Those issues have not been entirely swept away but, as a staff officer at a US air base west of Tokyo said, "Japan is on the cusp of major changes in security policy."
The Japanese, for instance, have asked the US to accelerate delivery of Patriot anti-missile batteries to Japan.
Speculation that Kim Jong-il might order a North Korean nuclear bomb test has given more impetus to the revisions. An unknown factor, however, is the effect of a potential US reduction or withdrawal of troops from South Korea. In US military strategy, Japan and Korea comprise a single area of operations.
To nudge these changes along, US Navy Admiral William Fallon, who leads US forces in Asia and the Pacific from his headquarters in Hawaii, visited Japan two weeks ago. He met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front runner to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi later this month, and other political and military leaders in Tokyo.
Further, the admiral flew to Japan's southwest island of Kyushu to meet with Lieutenant General Naoto Hayashi, who commands Japan's Western Army and Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, commander of the Japanese navy's regional district, which is headquartered in Sasebo. The US Navy has a base next door.
The weight of Japan's small but modern armed force is gradually being shifted from Hokkaido, the northern island, where its Northern Army's mission was to repel a possible Russian invasion. Today, Japan sees a near-term threat from North Korea and a slowly developing threat from China. Kyushu is closer to North Korea and China than Hokkaido.
A Japanese officer in the Western Army said: "We are the ones out front now."
If Japan were to deploy troops abroad, such as rotating 10 contingents of 600 soldiers each to Iraq, they would most likely come from the Western Army.
Timelines have been established for changes in force structures between now and 2014 that will add up to a new look for both the US and Japanese deployments in Japan.
In 2008, a forward element of 200 soldiers from the US Army's I Corps is scheduled to move from Fort Lewis, Washington, to Camp Zama, southwest of Tokyo, to prepare communications, a combat command center, and support facilities for a joint task force headquarters of 500 more soldiers if the need arises.
That forward element is to be joined by the Japanese Army's Central Readiness Force by 2012. The two units will be charged with preparing complementary operational plans for their respective ground troops.
At Yokota, the Japanese Air Defense Command will move from nearby Fuchu by 2010. A joint command center was set up last December, tested in exercises during the winter, and was operative gathering intelligence on the North Korean missile shoot.
One missile exploded shortly after launch, prompting an American quip: "Six Scuds and a dud."
On the Japanese side, a lack of coordination and joint operations among the armed forces has long been a glaring weakness. Seeking to rectify that, Japan established a Joint Staff Office in March along the lines of the US joint staff in the Pentagon.
Japanese and US officers alike said, however, that Japan has far to go to acquire the habit of joint operations.
Wright said the joint coordination center was intended to speed communications among the Japan's Joint Staff Office, his headquarters at Yokota, and the US Pacific Command in Hawaii.
"Working together has tremendous power," he said in a recent TV interview. "One plus one equals much more than two."
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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