On May 14, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet approved a set of legislative packages that would change the operational parameters of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). During a press conference held on the same day, Abe explained that these legislative changes are absolutely critical for Japan to defend itself in a fast-changing security environment and continue its efforts in making a “proactive contribution to peace.”
The legislative package will be the central focus of legislative deliberation in the Japanese Diet in the coming few months. Already, opposition parties, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in particular, are openly complaining about Abe’s “promise” to pass the legislation through the Diet by the end of this summer in his April 29 speech in front of the U.S. Congress. Critics see that pledge as a sign of Abe’s contempt for the Diet, claiming that he committed Japan to actions that are not yet authorized by the Japanese Diet. As public opinion polls, such as the one conducted by Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) and released on May 11, 2015, continue to show almost an even split on the potential for JSDF assuming a greater role overseas, the Abe government will face an uphill battle as it pushes through this legislation, which is critical in implementing the new U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation.
In this highly politically-charged atmosphere, focused almost exclusively on the new legislation package, one critical issue in Japan’s defense reform is being left behind: defense acquisition reform.
In the new guidelines, both sides referred to the importance of expanding bilateral cooperation in the areas of defense equipment and technology. With the Abe government setting out new principles for arms exports in April 2014, thereby relaxing the restrictions that were previously imposed on the export of defense equipment by Japanese industry, this area indeed offers a great deal of potential for alliance cooperation.
Defense acquisition reform, an effort that is long overdue, is a critical part in Japan’s endeavor to maximize the potential of this policy revision. In February 2015, Japan’s Ministry of Defense (JMOD) announced that it will establish the Acquisition and Logistics Agency (ATLA). To be headed by a commissioner who has seniority equivalent to an administrative vice minister (the top bureaucratic position), the new ATLA is expected to absorb JMOD’s resident research and development and contract management functions. By doing so, this new organization is expected to provide oversight in five core functions: acquisition program management, promotion of defense equipment cooperation with the United States and Japan’s other trusted security partners, research and development, execution of acquisition reform, and preservation of Japan’s indigenous defense industrial base.
However, there is a bureaucratic hurdle to overcome prior to creating the ATLA: establishing it requires modifying the Ministry of Defense’s Organization Establishment Law, which codifies the organizational structure of JMOD. The necessary work for the modification of this law was completed months ago; we are now waiting for the Diet’s action.
However, due to the overwhelming attention received by the new defense legislation package that Abe’s Cabinet just approved, analysts are concerned that the establishment of ATLA might receive less attention, and thus lower priority, in the upcoming Diet session. This potential outcome would then delay the official launch of the organization beyond the anticipated date of October 2015.
The new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines overwhelmingly put the onus on the Japanese government to execute its full implementation, and the establishment of ATLA is no exception. Japan’s ongoing defense reform is composed of many elements and defense acquisition reform, which includes the ATLA establishment, is a critical part of this effort. Although less politically controversial than other aspects of reform, the legislative action necessary to launch ATLA must be treated as a high priority.
This article originally appeared in The Diplomat, on May 16, 2015.