At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It?

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I have a new piece out in Foreign Policy. It takes a look at the changing balance of power between Pacific Command and the PLA, with a special focus on the vulnerabilities of US Forces Japan. This section describes the problem:

The threat posed by China to forces stationed in Japan is real: Over the last ten years the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has drastically increased its ability to strike at the Japanese home islands, especially by missile or rocket. Ten years ago the PLA had fewer than 100 cruise or ballistic missiles capable of targeting U.S. air bases in Japan; according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s most recent report on the PLA, they now have around 1,000 ballistic or land-attack cruise missiles with this capability.

Missiles like these fly at extreme speeds. In a potential conflict, the first wave would arrive in Japan 6 to 9 minutes after being launched from mobile missile launchers scattered across China. This wave’s target list would include anti-missile and air defense systems, command centers, and communication systems. A review of PLA documents by Ian Easton and Oriana Skylar Mastro reveal a special focus on targeting runways of American bases in Japan. With runways cratered, American aircraft would be stranded, sitting ducks for the next wave of inbound missiles.

Simulations of these attacks are nauseating. In a 2017 report for the Center for a New American Security, Tom Shugart and Javier Gonzales conclude that the missile defense systems of every single American air and naval base in Japan would be overwhelmed by the PLA Rocket Force’s very first volley. They estimate that more than 200 aircraft, almost all fixed American command centers, every U.S. runway, and most of the American fleet at berth would be destroyed—tens of billions of dollars in military equipment gone in less than 30 minutes of fighting. Recent Rand Corp. war games found similar results. In response to the games, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work offered a caustic assessment: “In every case I know of, the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”

There is a very real chance that America’s front-line forces would be crippled in the first moments of a conflict with China.[1]

We are in a very grim situation in the West Pacific. If a war started tomorrow there is no guarantee the United States would win it. In fact, unless China started this war already a bit spent in other engagements (say, with Taiwan) it is quite certain we would lose the initial battles. Expect more from me on this issue over the coming months.

None of this is inevitable. My piece for Foreign Policy focuses in on one small part of what could be done to make things better: distributing American forces across Japan so that they cannot be destroyed in one devastating missile strike. In response to this suggestion you will hear many people argue that it is impossible, that the Japanese will never allow this. I rather hope this is not so. If the Japanese are not willing to accept a more decentralized American presence on the Japanese archipelago, then the time has come to ask whether a defense alliance with the Japanese is worth it the potential dangers and financial costs involved. If we are not allowed to actually defend Japan, then what is the point? Money wasted on their part, and lives on ours.

If you would like to read more of work on East Asian geopolitics, consider the posts “Taiwan Can Win a War With China,” and “Who is to Blame For Taiwan’s Military Woes?” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, “U.S. Bases in Japan are Sitting Ducks,” Foreign Policy (5 September 2019).

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Simply because a cruise missile can reach an airbase, doesn't mean it will be particularly effective. Although great claims were made, the 59 cruise missiles the United States fired during the Shayrat missile strike were apparently underwhelming in their long term effectiveness. As to why:

So unless the Chinese want to dedicate a huge percentage of their cruise missiles specifically toward knocking out airbases, to the detriment of of many other important missions, it is not clear that the stated scenario is actually true.


The Chinese already have the capacity the article you link to describes as essential to effective vs. ineffective runway cratering. I'll refer you to the Shugart/Gonzales and Easton/Maestro studies linked to in the piece. They discuss this extensively.

"Long term" effectiveness is not really what is needed. Runway repair crews can fix anything on the long term. The goal is to crater things bad enough that runway flights are not feasible in larger enough numbers to prevent the planes from being targeted directly in wave 1.5, wave 2, and wave 3. None of the missile warheads in those waves need to be devoted to cratering. The craters are already there. They will focus on the air wing that will then be trapped.

A secondary goal, especially in the Taiwan scenario, is to reduce sortie rates to such a sluggish pace that PLAAF can use numerical advantage to pick off whatever gets up into the air.

Also, another small note: the cruise missile attack you cite put that airbase out of action for four days. That is pretty good. To be effective, the PLARF only needs to keep the American bases out of action for a few hours.

Very nice article. You raised some extremely important points, presented them clearly and didn't use too many words doing it.

russell1200's point is well taken. 1000 missiles means 1000 or so 1000 or 2000 pound bombs. That sounds like a lot but when you look back at the various wars and the number of bombs needed for various targets it isn't.

However…as Mr. Greer states, when the targets are concentrated in just a few places that small number of bombs has a really big effect. The simple measures advocated in the article would make the problem for the Red Chinese really hard, especially since Japan is so mountainous. It is a bit ironic the Japanese government isn't more amenable to dispersing the air and naval forces since what the Red Chinese would seek to do is exactly what the Japanese did to us in the Philippines in December, 1941, a devastating first strike to knock out forces concentrated in one place.

There is another thing that comes to mind reading this and reading some of the things B.R. Myers has written. What if the Japanese and the South Koreans way deep down inside, aren't really very interested in defending themselves? Where does that leave us and our whole foreign policy? And where does that leave the Anzacs? Perhaps we should start thinking about this.

What is Japan's own defense capacity at the moment? Does an American withdrawal (or failure to adapt to a stronger PLA) more or less automatically relegate Japan to submission under China? Or is there some projected ability for Japan to develop its own effective defense?

There is an alternative:

Instead, the US and Japan could preposition equipment, infrastructure, and facilities at Japanese bases that then stand ready to accept dispersal of US assets prior to war – and then train to do just that.

Additionally, the US should ensure it has the necessary resources to operate in austere wartime locations, such as highways and other makeshift arming and refueling points.

Together, this would increase the number of potential locations with US forces in wartime above what permanent basing could do – and it would do so at a much lower financial and political cost.

Chinese warplanners would then have to contend with an even larger zero-hour target list, without knowing our dispersal plan and which bases are actually occupied by US Air assets. it also gives US forces more options to move and sustain operations after zero hour.

I think this is a much better, achievable, cheaper, and more realistic option than expanding the permanent US footprint, which just gives the Chinese a bigger known/preplanned target list.

The US and Japan could also make existing bases more resilient to pre-planned long-range missile strikes by creating more dispersal areas, hardening, redundancy and, especially mobility, which is the counter to long-range missile strikes.

The inherent challenge with long-range precision attack is one of timely intelligence. Such attacks are excellent against fixed infrastructure but the intelligence problem is significant for successfully targeting mobile assets – the "sensor-to-shooter" problem.

At a bigger level is the question of whether this kind of surprise attack – assuming it works as described, would actually be decisive. Much depends on the context of the conflict, but grounding land-based airpower in Japan for a few days or even weeks is not enough to win a war.

If we're at the point where China is launching a mass cruise missile attack against our bases in Japan, doesn't that imply that we're probably at the point of nuclear retaliation? At which point do airbases matter when you're playing thermonuclear war?

"Defending Japan" is such a disingenuous way to talk about the American occupation.

Here a simple solution:

– Yankee go home
– Japan gets nukes

@Anon2– I the Japanese want to do things that way, they are free to elect a government that kicks the Yankees out and rushes to develop their own bomb.

Not holding my breath.

@Andy–Inherent problem with this is still timescale. Also creates an incentive for the PLARF to begin their attack if they think the US is beginning the dispersal process. The bad precedent for this sort of thing is WWI mobilization plans.

@Anon1– They are getting better and better. Most promising is their drive to develop their own Intermediate Range Ballistic missiles so they can hold China hostage to the exact same scenario. But it will take some time for that all to be put in place.

But in the near term (2020-2025) I would say 'yes,' this puts the Japanese at the mercy of Chinese benevolence.

@Rashad– No reason for nuclear retaliation that I see. What are the reasons you are thinking of?

Speaking of US retaliation, nuclear or otherwise, I don't think we can necessarily assume that the US would purely follow self-interest in terms of "this is gonna be a long, nasty, and costly fight that I might not win, and so I'm going to back out of this and let the Chinese take the eastern Pacific".

Politics would presumably play an important role – to have American military bases attacked by a country that has already been presented to the public as a rival and a threat…I don't think it would necessarily matter that the bases are in Japan.

Pearl Harbor was in the Territory of Hawaii, a colonial possession, and yet there was an immediate assumption of the absolute necessity of retaliation.

The advisability of such a move is probably very different in that case vs. retaliation against a PRC attack on US bases in Japan, but nonetheless there seems to be a common political impulse towards retaliation, right?

Well, I guess we're in uncharted territory a bit since no time in US history as a nuclear power have our conventional forces come under surprise attack from another nuclear power, but I mean, isn't bombing our airbases in Japan basically an act of war by China against the US?

I guess we wouldn't want to escalate to nukes, but at the same time it's pretty uncharted territory to be in a war with China.