SDF Ready Reserves training with a mortar

SDF Ready Reserves training with a mortar (Source: MoD)

The Finance Ministry is unhappy with the Self-Defense Force Reserves. According to reports on Wednesday, an investigation into government waste highlighted the poor turnout of the Reserves following the March 11th Earthquake.

With a budget of ¥8 billion ($101 million), ¥5.6 billion of which pays for wages (ranging between ¥7,900/day for a Candidate, to ¥16,000/day for a Ready Reservist), the Finance Ministry was disappointed to find out that only 4,497 (17.1%) of the 26,372 Reservists were ready and able after the Cabinet decision to call-up the reserves on March 16th 2011. The investigation concluded:

Although the SDF Reserves cost ¥8 billion annually to maintain, at the time of the disaster the Reserves did not establish enough operational readiness for mobilization. Thus, the following measures should be adopted:

1. Measures on the Operation of the SDF Reserves

i. All the armies of the Ground Self Defense Force should establish proper disaster response plans for the call-up, scale and activities of the SDF Reservists.

ii. In formulating disaster response plan, the operational needs of the SDF Reservists should be clarified based on the expected necessary increase in duties.

iii. In order for a smooth call-up of the SDF Reservists in the event of a large-scale disaster, the GSDF Local Cooperation Offices should establish and maintain a unified database of SDF Reservists members.

2. Measures on the SDF Reserves

i. Increased incentives (pay, promotion, etc.) should be considered for SDF Reservists disaster response call-up.

ii. Under the current system, there are penalties for a breach of duty under SDF Reservists defense call-up. The introduction of the same system should be considered for disaster call-ups.

17.1% activation is a terrible figure and at ¥8 billion a year, that money could be put to use repairing SDF facilities damaged in the tsunami (¥6.9 billion), buying an Apache helicopter (¥5.8 billion) or extending the lives of 16 SH-60J patrol helicopters (¥1 billion a pair). However, a reservist system is necessary for maintaining base security in the event of attack and boosting manpower in times of a national emergency.

Breaking down the figures given in the investigation (below), you can see a clear difference between the two kinds of SDF Reserves: the poorly-trained SDF Reservists made up of civilians and former regular SDF, many of whom offer professional skills (language, medical, etc.) to the three services, and the SDF Ready Reservists, the first port-of-call for call-up comprised of former regular SDF personnel and SDF Reservists capable of maintaining high-readiness, operating under GSDF command only. No numbers are given for the readiness of the Ready Reservists who can be penalized for refusing their duties and be forced to resign. Of the SDF Reservists, 10% failed to respond to the Local Cooperation Offices to state whether they were ready or not, this could partly be due to the effects of the disaster itself.

 Total Manpower Total Ready? Called-up
Full SDF
38,378 SDF Reservists
(5 days training/year)
4,497 314 (9.6%)
(% of total force)
SDF Ready Reservists
(30 days training/year)
(Only GSDF)
- 1,369 (23.7%)
(% of total force)

Of those 4,497 Reservists who responded as ready, only 6.9% of the SDF Reservists (training only 5 days a year) were put into use (314 members ) – many of whom acted as translators for foreign rescue teams). On the other 23.7% of the Ready Reservists (training 30 days a year) saw their skills being put into use.

It is unclear how the SDF would have used their reservists even if a high proportion had reported for duty – hence the investigation’s urging that the SDF consider how they can use the reservists in the future. With many of the standard reservists being poorly training, the regular SDF leadership is skeptical of just what this extra manpower could provide, favoring the Ready Reservists despite the readiness of the standard Reservists.

As for increasing participation, the Finance Ministry’s investigation suggests carrot and stick approach, increasing incentives and disincentives. However, I would argue that greater incentives are needed along with a basic reform of the system in the form of increased commitment. My own country, the UK, has a similar but much larger and better funded reserve system comprised of the Regular Reserves – former Regulars kept on the roster in case of a needed boost of manpower – and the Territorial Army (so-called “Weekend Warriors”) who comprise units and forces of their own.

The two major differences are job security and variable participation. I would like to imagine that many who join the Reservists do so for the reality faced on that March afternoon. They want to help, but they can only do so within the confines of their contract with the SDF Reserves, who place a limit on the amount of training they can do (5 days for a Reservist, 30 days for a Ready Reservist), and the law, which provides no job security for Reservists.

It would not be surprising if many Reservists declined to be called up because of their other work, and legal safeguards should be put in place. Better job security is needed – in the UK, employers must give reservists their jobs back after a call-up, whereas in Japan, the SDF maintains a compensation scheme to smooth things over with the employers of the Ready Reserves, but this is non-binding. In a society where many give their all for their companies, it is not surprising then that they might be mixed over whether to risk their livelihood for a chance to help out in a crisis.

Clearly, too, the level of training given to the Reservists is far from satisfactory. Five days a year is far from normal compared to international standards: Territorial Army members train for 30-60 days a year, including 14-day camp; US Reservists serve 2 days a month plus a 15-day annual tour. In the SDF Reserves, training is fixed with no maximum/minimum limit – anyone who wants to do more will be turned down. They need allow the SDF Reservists to attend more training if they are ever to prove themselves useful to the regular SDF command, and they should consider allowing them to attend major exercises. This also goes for the Ready Reservists, who should be made even more able to attend to their duties.

Counter to the implications of the Finance Ministry’s investigation, this would take much more money, but as it stands the Reserves are under-trained and under-funded as a reserve force. How the Defense Ministry and the Finance Ministry, the holders of their purse strings, handle this disappointment could be critical to the future of the Reserves, who were reportedly seeing an influx of recruits. A balance must be made that allows those who want to contribute to their country to do so without fear of losing their jobs and being turned down for being under-prepared by the very people who should be preparing them.

[All exchange rates calculated at market rate at time of writing ($1 = ¥79.7)]

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch