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Regional security worries paved way for unified HQ for Japan's land forces

In this May 31, 2015 file photo, a Ground Self-Defense Force Type 90 tank is seen in Chitose, Hokkaido. (Mainichi)

Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) is about to undergo a fundamental organizational shift, one so great that a senior officer called it the "biggest reform (of the force) since its creation."

On March 27, the GSDF's five regional commands will be placed under a Ground Central Command -- the first time Japan's land forces have been unified under a single headquarters since World War II. The force will also establish an Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade to defend Japan's far-flung island territories, among other changes.

The former Imperial Japanese Army's recklessness before and during World War II had long made postwar Japan wary of placing all of the country's ground forces under a single command organ. However, that has changed as observers have pointed out that the GSDF needs nationwide command and control functions to properly defend the country's Nansei Islands, the chain stretching southwest from Kyushu and including the Okinawan archipelago.

The GSDF reduced its personnel, tank and other equipment numbers after the end of the Cold War. However, the coming organizational changes are obviously aimed at boosting the GSDF's profile with an eye on the revised National Defense Program Guidelines -- the broad plan steering Japan's defense aims and equipment acquisitions -- that will be finalized at the end of this year.

"We will build the framework for the creation of an adaptive, agile Ground Defense Force," GSDF Chief of Staff, Gen. Koji Yamazaki told a March 22 news conference. "Unified operational command will become possible, as will the creation of a defense posture capable of responding flexibly and quickly to contingencies anywhere in the country."

A unified headquarters has been the "ardent wish" of the GSDF since its creation in 1954, a senior officer told the Mainichi Shimbun. The Maritime Self-Defense Force has the Self-Defense Fleet, and the Air Self-Defense Force has the Air Defense Command, both of which have authority over the operations of their respective forces nationwide. The GSDF, however, has long been divided into five independent regional commands, each of which follows orders from the defense minister. If forces from different parts of the country need to combine, then the defense minister must rely on the help of the Joint Staff Office to coordinate with the different GSDF regional commands -- a complicated process.

The government considered inserting the creation of a unified command body for the GSDF in both the 2004 and 2010 versions of the National Defense Program Guidelines. However, the GSDF opposed the initiatives as they came with the rider that the regional commands would be abolished, among other cutback proposals. Memories of the Imperial Japanese Army's exploitation of its "independent supreme command" to forge its own reckless path also led to deeply rooted resistance to concentrating any power in the hands of the modern land force.

However, the worsening security environment around Japan and the experience of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake convinced the government that a unified GSDF headquarters was necessary. And in 2013, the Cabinet approved National Defense Program Guideline revisions that included creating one.

During the Cold War, there was little chance of a contingency requiring unified operational control of all Japan's land forces. However, the recent emergence of a nuclear and missile threat from North Korea, and the quick modernization of China's armed forces and its growing assertiveness on the oceans have raised tensions. A point of particular worry for Japan is its southwestern islands, where the GSDF's scant presence has created a defensive "blank spot." With confrontation between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture continuing at the same time as Japan keeps a wary eye on North Korea and Russia, there have been increasing calls to develop a force with the flexibility for an agile pivot to the Nansei Islands if needed.

However, an officer has taken it upon himself to issue orders to all Japan's GSDF regional commands before. Immediately after the March 2011 disasters struck, then GSDF Chief of Staff, Gen. Yoshifumi Hibako did just that, saying he was "prepared to be fired" for his actions, though he received approval from then Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa after the fact.

"Seeking perfect fulfillment of all the prescribed procedures would have risked delays in providing aid," Hibako recalled recently to the Mainichi. "Going forward, unit operations will become smoother, and (the unified GSDF headquarters) should help harmonize cooperation with the Maritime and Air self-defense forces."

However, there are some within the Defense Ministry who believe the new unified GSDF command will be "useless," and only serve to slow down decision-making and reporting processes. Furthermore, the government does not have the approval of local residents around Saga Airport to use the facility as a base for Osprey tiltrotor military aircraft, which would transport part of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade to any flashpoint in the Nansei Islands.

"Changing the (GSDF's) organization is just the first step, not the goal," said retired Gen. Kiyoshi Ogawa, former commander of the GSDF's Western Army. "There is a need to build up the skills and know-how to use the new formations effectively. Education, training and building up hands-on operational experience will be very important."

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