JS Atago. Ministry of Defense photo.

JS Atago. Ministry of Defense photo.

I recently finished listening to T.X. Hammes on the Midrats podcast for the second time. If you don’t listen to Midrats you should, particularly when they address Asia/Pacific. I think Sal gets Asia wrong at times, but he and Eagle1 ask good questions. They have good guests, and they let their guests talk (sometimes on and on and on…but that’s what you’re there for.) I’ve liked T.X. Hammes ever since I read The Sling and the Stone several years ago. It’s refreshing to hear someone who can move from state vs. non-state asymmetric warfare to a potential confrontation between the United States and China, and the B.S. meter doesn’t move.

Hammes lays out a very good case for a strategy of Offshore Control in this article here [PDF]. To wit: Offshore Control is a strategy, while AirSea Battle is not. Offshore Control advocates the U.S. military to stand off China’s coast and strangle it economically, without strikes on the Chinese mainland, with the theory of victory that China will fold when it’s economy can no longer tolerate war. On the other hand, AirSea Battle advocates carrying the war to the Chinese mainland, with the theory of victory…well, hopefully at some point the Chinese would just realize they were beat and give up. Offshore Control is a strategy tailored to the diminishing resources of the U.S. military, while AirSea Battle requires a large buildup of new weapons systems.

I like Offshore Control, a lot. One of the things I like most about it, that Hammes only briefly alludes to, is that Offshore Control takes into account cultural and other psychological factors. Striking the Chinese mainland in and around major cities will be humiliating to the Chinese Communist Party. There is a chance that the CCP would view such strikes, in view of the Chinese people, as a loss of face that would require escalation. What that escalation is I’d rather not speculate but it obviously wouldn’t be good. Particularly for our allies. On the other hand, keeping a conflict at sea or in the air makes it easier for the Chinese government to hide — but still feel the effect of — damage to China’s ability to wage war. The CCP can tell their people whatever they want about how the war at sea went.

Remember when the Japanese junta didn’t take into account American cultural factors? It went poorly for them. Apples and oranges, of course, but the point is that culture is an often under-appreciated factor in war.

P-1 maritime patrol aircraft.

P-1 maritime patrol aircraft.

So how would Offshore Control affect Japan?

It protects Japanese civilians and the Japanese mainland. Unlike AirSea Battle, Offshore Control does not mean offensive strikes on the Chinese mainland. Without those strikes, there is a chance that conflict would not escalate to ground strikes on any country, particularly Japan, and action would be limited to the sea and air. While there is always a chance that China might strike Futenma, Naha, Sasebo, Maizuru, Yokota, Zama,  et al. without provocation, Offshore Control gives the Chinese no urgency to escalate to that level. Which is good, because most of those bases are ringed with civilians, and the Circular Error Probable and quality control of Chinese weapons is probably not all that great.

It’s an easier sell to the Japanese people. Offshore Control is a defensive strategy. It doesn’t involve things that the Japanese public dislikes, such as offensive operations. It doesn’t involve Japan cooperating with a country that will be attacking Chinese soil. It simply involves coordinating defensive operations with a longstanding ally.

It doesn’t freeze China into a military adversary of Japan. China isn’t an enemy of Japan, but it isn’t an ally, either. It’s something new. China is one of Japan’s top three trading partners — if not the top trading partner. That relationship is important to China, and it’s also important to Japan. Let’s be honest: how is China supposed to feel trading with Japan when Japan is actively allying with a country planning strikes on the Chinese mainland? Japan’s relationship with China is complicated enough and doesn’t need the added friction.

Japanese Patriot PAC-3 air defense systems deploy to Okinawa. Via JapanUpdate.com.

Japanese Patriot PAC-3 air defense systems deploy to Okinawa. Via JapanUpdate.com.

Offshore Control doesn’t require a drastic revamping of the SDF. Japan’s role in Offshore Control would be strictly defensive. Japan would be required to defend its own territory, and nothing else. In fact, the SDF’s role in Offshore Control is pretty much the same as it has been for the past sixty years. Due to its long sea border with China, Japan merely defending Japanese territory restricts Chinese freedom of action and contributes to the war effort. Japan can continue focusing on escorting convoys from 1,000 miles out, ballistic missile defense, guarding the various straits with submarines, and generally defending Japanese territory. Precisely what it’s already been doing for decades.

It doesn’t require Japan spending money it doesn’t have. A lot of people see Japan’s increase in defense spending as a good thing. But with Japan’s economy in the doldrums and some of the highest government debt in the First World, it just doesn’t have the money to pursue a meaningful defense buildup. A (tiny) one year increase is a start, but it’s really only a gesture. 

Offshore Control would not drive a defense budget increase and could be done within the existing budget framework. Japan’s roles and missions in Offshore Control would be the same as they have been for the last fifty years, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that the SDF doesn’t need a hydra of new, expensive weapons systems. (Maybe to drive a defensive anti-access/area denial strategy around the Senkakus, but a little money in A2AD goes a long way.)

It doesn’t require Japan to work closely with a U.S. that won’t tell it what the plan is until the war starts. The U.S. has been notoriously tight-lipped about allied participation in AirSea Battle. Under AirSea Battle the war starts and Japan knows…squat about what the U.S. plans to do, and what it’s supposed to do. Maybe the Japanese brass knows. But if I were the average Japanese person on the street, not knowing would make me nervous. By comparison, during the Cold War the average West German had a very good idea what the American V Corps would do if the Warsaw Pact rolled over the border.


It doesn’t require modifying the Japanese constitution. I do think that Japan needs to eventually normalize its status as a country with a natural right to a regular armed forces, but I’m not sure it needs to be done now. To be honest, Abe’s recent statements on aggression and World War II are a bit unsettling, and I’m not sure I want to hand him the keys to the car right now.

Offshore Control is a safe bet for Japan. For once, change is not good.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch