Sasebo Naval Base, just outside Nagasaki. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user Fui.

In the early-1980s, the U.S. Department of Defense, struggling to figure out how to defend West Germany from a Warsaw Pact invasion, created AirLand Battle. AirLand Battle had one purpose: to stop Soviet, East German, and Polish mechanized forces from overrunning western Europe in a hot war situation.

AirLand Battle doctrine recognized that, in order to accomplish the mission, air and land forces would need to work together to confront the enemy throughout his depth. The American V and VII Corps would fight the battle on the ground, on the front lines, in central and southern West Germany. AH-64 Apache helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolts would work together against enemy armor columns in Joint Air Attack Teams. The U.S. Air Force would struggle to establish air superiority over the battlefield, to protect close air support missions and clear the way for deep interdiction missions on Pact follow-on forces and supply depots. Even U.S. Army multiple launch rocket systems got into the act, providing wide-area air defense suppression for close air support. It was probably the most ambitious joint service war plan of the postwar era. It might well have worked, too, had not most if not all Warsaw Pact battle plans included liberal use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Thirty years later, the United States and  allies find themselves with another potential adversary: China. As a result, the Pentagon is working on a modern analog for AirLand Battle: AirSea Battle. Just as the requirement to win on the ground in western Europe drove the union of the Air Force and Army, the requirement to fight and win over the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean are driving the Air Force and Navy (and Marine Corps) to fight together.

In the case of AirLand Battle, the battlefield was West Germany. West Germany was not exactly keen on being a battleground state, and politically pushed for operational concessions. Specifically, it wanted to contain any potential invasion as close to the Inter-German Border as possible, in order to spare as much of the German population as possible. It forced NATO’s military leadership to go from a defense in depth of West Germany to a so-called “forward defense” (PDF). Obviously, in a situation where you are outnumbered a defense in depth is the way to go: just ask the Wehrmacht of 1944. But such a defense, which would require hundreds of kilometers to work properly, would have been ruinous for West Germany’s cities and imperil millions of civilians. Even the forward defense strategy, depicted below, took up half of the country.


Fast forward to AirSea Battle. The nature of any conflict in the Pacific will almost certainly involve missile and air strikes, and bases on land and fleets at sea will be the front lines. One only needs to look at World War II, which similarly involved long stretches of ocean dotted with key islands, when bases such as Rabaul, Saipan, Truk, and Henderson Field were the front lines. AirSea Battle’s equivalents will likely be places like Hainan Island, Guam, Naha Air Base, and Yokota Air Base.

Pacific Theater of Operations, 1941-45.


Nobody knows yet what role Japan will play in AirSea Battle, except that it will be a necessary one. There are too many U.S. military bases on Japanese soil that would be essential to the war effort. Neither can Japan divorce itself from the AirSea Battle scenario. Not only would breaking the U.S. – Japan alliance spin Japan off into a world for which it is unprepared to go alone, but any conflict involving the U.S. in the Pacific would implicitly involve an enemy that would be a far greater threat to Japan than it would the U.S. Japan is stuck with America, and AirSea Battle.

On one hand, AirSea Battle is good thing, because it strengthens security in Japan’s neighborhood, and acts as a deterrent to conflict. But on the other hand, it places a prominent chunk of Japan in the crosshairs of an enemy such as North Korea and China, locations where a large number of civilians could be put at risk. Japan finds itself in the same position as Germany did thirty years ago. Here is where Japan needs to make a decision.



Japanese locals, particularly in Okinawa, often complain about the potential safety problems of American bases in Japan, particularly the base at Futenma. That’s in peacetime. In wartime, bases such as Futenma, Yokosuka, Yokota, Zama, Schwab, and many others will be prime targets for conventional and possibly nuclear, chemical, and biological strikes. These bases are ringed with civilian communities, and given the circular error probable (CEP) of Chinese and North Korea missiles, many will fall outside the gate. Japanese cities at risk include Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Sustained strikes could inflict terrible casualties on Japanese civilians.

Here’s Yokota Air Base, in the greater Tokyo area, home of the combined U.S. – Japan air defense command. Notice the hospital and several nearby schools, not to mention the homes.

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The bottom line for Japan is that AirSea Battle is coming, and Japan will be a front-line state. Like West Germany, Japan had better figure out how to play a role in AirSea that minimizes civilian casualties. If it doesn’t, the United States will tell Japan what role it will play, and the minimizing Japanese civilian casualties will be far less of a priority for American planners than it will be for the Japanese.

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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