4 stars or 3, send a winner to head US Forces Japan

United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin commented to reporters at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June that the Pentagon is considering posting a four-star general to command US Forces Japan (USFJ). A three-star general currently holds the position.

A friend asked about the significance of such a move. 

By itself, installing a four-star general doesn’t make much difference. At least if improved ability to fight (and win) a war – with or without our Japanese allies – is what you’re trying to accomplish.

The number of stars doesn’t matter much.

What USFJ needs is the structure, resources, dedicated forces, command authority and mission to be a real warfighting command.

What is not needed is a force that just apologizes to the Japanese government now and then when US troops misbehave, and otherwise mostly passes messages back and forth between Tokyo and the Honolulu headquarters of the US Indo-Pacific Command.

Without the aforementioned, it really doesn’t matter if USFJ is a four-star or any other star.

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) sailors receive a tour on the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force JS Izumo on April 2, 2024 . Photo: courtesy of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force / Facebook

Four-star counterparts

It’s possible, however, that the Japanese might see a four-star as preferable. That is because his immediate Japanese counterpart at the Japan Self-Defense Force‘s soon-to-be-activated joint headquarters would be a four-star.

Japan will be standing up a Permanent Joint Headquarters by March 2025 – for the first time ever. It will direct and coordinate operations of the JSDF’s Ground, Maritime, and Air components.

Symbolism

And if symbolism is what you’re after, a four-star might suggest the United States places more importance on Japan than is symbolized by a mere three-star. In the rarified world of generals and admirals, compared with a four-star even a three-star sometimes has about as much influence as a first lieutenant.

But symbolism doesn’t win wars.  And winning wars is all that matters. Or, if you’re lucky, you’ve done what’s necessary so an adversary knows he’ll lose – and you thereby avoid a war altogether. That’s called deterrence.

A record of success counts

As a final note, the ooh-Ing and ah-Ing over the possibility of a four-star being posted to Japan, does warrant a logical question. 

Which US flag officer led or participated in a successful campaign beyond the tactical level over the last twenty-plus years?  

To put it politely, it is not a very big number.

Lloyd J. Austin III, Secretary of Defense, poses for his official portrait in the Army portrait studio at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.,Jan 23, 2020. Photo: Spc. XaViera Masline, US Army

Indeed, only two general officers (both now retired) come immediately to mind as even having questioned this lack of success against second- and third-rate opponents in the post-9/11 wars: Lieutenant General Ben Hodges and Brigadier General Donald Bolduc.

So Tokyo or anyone else shouldn’t get too excited about the secretary of defense’s comments.  

And by the way, what’s his track record? As the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) he oversaw the effort to create a Syrian resistance force to fight Islamic State terrorists. And he blew a half billion dollars with nothing to show for it. But in today’s military that gets you a medal, a seat on Raytheon’s board, and an invitation to run the entire US military.

The commander of the US Marine Corps’ 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, General Trevor Hall (left), and the commander of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, General Hajime Kitajima,, stand together in a press conference during a joint training exercise in Okinawa on March 12. Photo: ©Kyodo

Standing up the JSDF

Japan ought to take note and do even more to improve JSDF capabilities. And it should overcome its near-pathologic dependence on US forces to backstop Japan’s national defense. 

The USINDOPACOM commander, Admiral Samuel Paparo, is said to have more of a warfighting mentality than some of his predecessors. Some serious thought is reportedly being given to this USFJ issue – and beyond the issue of rank – even if one wishes things would move faster.

Photo: US Indo-Pacific Command

Maybe Japan could also speak up and tell the Americans clearly what it wants from USFJ and what operational relationships it wants with US forces in Asia. 

There are plenty of good officers in the US military. There always have been – even if breaking them loose from the ticket-puncher go-along-to get-along crowd takes some effort. 

So find an officer who is serious about fighting (rather than being a politician in uniform). Put him in Japan – with the right mission, resources, and authority. 

And only then worry about how many stars he’s got on his shoulder. Indeed, give him some extra ones if that makes people happy.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America.

This article was originally published by JAPAN Forward and is republished with permission.

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