MODERATOR: Greetings from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub. I would like to welcome journalists to today’s on-the-record briefing with Major General Joel “JB” Vowell, Commanding General, U.S. Army Japan. General Vowell will discuss the 2023 LANPAC Symposium and Exposition that will occur May 16th to 18th in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is also prepared to discuss the U.S. Army’s role in Japan.
With that, let’s get started. General Vowell, I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
MAJOR GENERAL VOWELL: Well, Katie and team, thank you very much for the invitation to participate. I’ll just make a few brief opening comments, spend less about LANPAC and try to give everyone a little bit more perspective for what we do and who we are as U.S. Army Japan and the current regional security environment, and how our Japanese counterparts in particular see that, because we live here and work with them every day. So again, thank you.
And behind me is a map. I can use this, and will, through some of the conversation. I’m somewhat simple and I like to see pictures when I describe things or I’m taught things. And I’ll be able to show you why perspective, geography, and the geopolitics in the region are very important.
So this map is kind of what the Japanese refer to as the lid map. At the bottom of the map you see the continent of Asia, and its orientation is to the east, to the top of the map, where you see the first island chain. It’s kind of drawn probably illegibly, and not being able to read with a black marker, but it encompasses the northern territories from Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and keeps going down to the South China Sea. We’ll talk more about that.
So who are we at U.S. Army Japan and what do we do? We are the stand-in force for the U.S. Army on the knife edge of freedom. That first island chain geography matters, and across that first island chain of freedom-loving allies and partners between South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan itself, is three authoritarian regimes who don’t have everybody’s best interests in mind. And we’ll talk more about Russia, DPRK or North Korea, and the People’s Republic of China.
But we stand in Japan along with our brothers and sisters from the Navy, the Air Force, and Marines, and provide crisis response options for any of the aggregated threats and what might happen or portend in a crisis in this region in the future. And part of that is assuring allies in the region – of which we have Japan, South Korea, and Philippines, treaty allies in the first island chain; Australia, New Zealand, of course – and not too many people know that Thailand is a treaty ally and has been since 1833 with a treaty of amity.
So the majority of the United States’s treaty allies are right here in the Indo-Pacific, and we don’t have a NATO construct like Europe, where almost 31 nations now are working together to deter further Russian aggression. So the assurance of allies and partners is part of what we do, but our physical presence and what we do each day is part of a deterrence, an integrated deterrence calculus of the posture of our forces, the capabilities of those forces, the signaling of what those forces can do – and we’ll talk about exercises and how that’s seen through the region and why we rehearse things – and lastly, the will and resolve.
That little equation I just gave everyone is kind of how integrated deterrence works in the physical world. It’s the posture, the capabilities, the signaling of what it can do, and the will and resolve to use that. We’re part of that equation with the Joint Force.
Third, interoperability. I mentioned assuring our allies, but we’re also driving change for better interoperability, in particular the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force, or JGSDF. Those are our primary counterparts: the army of Japan. And there is a defense of Japan as part of the mutual defense treaty with Japan, and we’re responsible for executing some of that, and exercises and rehearsals practice that multiple times a year.
But that interoperability is really getting after the three components. It’s the human facet of interoperability. You can’t build trust in a crisis, so being here forward deployed and stationed with our Japanese counterparts, working with them every day, they see us, talk with us, know us, we know them, and so know where the boundaries of trust and what we can do together.
And the second facet of interoperability we work on very hard is the technical aspect. So do our systems work with their systems. Think the computers and the way you would track things and information. It’s not the same. They’re made by different elements. Our armies are different. But can we work the technical aspects to communicate and to sew that fabric together so it’s not our problem in a crisis or potential conflict? And lastly is procedural. When those technical things can’t mesh together, what processes or procedures allow us to plan and prepare and execute together in a bilateral way? And so that’s the third real function my command does every day, is work on better interoperability with Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces.
We also, lastly, provide as an Army forward crisis response options for the Joint Force. Most of our mission is basically sustainment and support operations to stand-in forces with other elements of the Joint Force in a crisis or in a potential conflict. And so we have responsibilities to help our forces on the Korean Peninsula, our forces here in Japan, and potentially receive more augmentation from the continental United States or augmentation from allies and partners, should that be a challenge here in the first island chain. Again, looking at DPRK, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China.
So we call this in the map here, the first island chain, the knife edge of freedom because of the freedom of movement, the freedom of choice, the freedom of thought and expression that these nations that we work with and live in all agree to in the rules-based international order, as opposed by those authoritarian regimes I mentioned. And in fact, the People’s Republic of China, the pacing threat for not only my country, the United States, but as Japan articulated in their national security strategy last December, it is also their ultimate challenge economically, diplomatically, and militarily in the region. And other companies agree – countries, sorry – agree with that sentiment that the PRC is a strategic challenge long term. And it’s not original thought to say the 21st century will be defined by the challenge the PRC has against the rules-based international order, or so I’m told. But we see it here with our Japanese counterparts every day in the diplomatic, economic, and military spheres.
And so our goal in U.S. Army Japan and my headquarters and Indo-Pacific Command, number one, no war. Any conflict in this region is going to be horrific. As we watch Ukraine and Russia on the second invasion from Russia into Ukraine now over its year, since February 22, it’s horrific in scale, the loss of life and infrastructure and the uprooting of civil society that’s being – that’s happening. One could only project what that might mean if there were a larger conflagration or conflict here in the first island chain in the Indo-Pacific. It would be – it would be catastrophic economically across the world and also just in a personal human cost, something that would exceed or at least equal those of World War II, where thousands of soldiers across different formations were lost in a week, something that we’re not prepared to do or not want to do. No one wants that.
So going back to deterrence, no war, trying to prevent that from happening. But at the same time my formation and my joint brothers and sisters are charged with being ready and providing options for national leadership and senior leadership in our services for those options should crisis portend into conflict.
So this is the most challenging time I have seen in my 32 years of active duty. And I’m an Army dependent who grew up with a father in the service and we lived in West Germany, a country that doesn’t exist anymore. But we were there to stop the Soviet invasion of NATO and expansion into Western Europe. That was going to be a horrific conflict in the ‘70s of ‘80s if that ever happened. Thank goodness it didn’t. But even with that in mind, as a young dependent child living overseas, I haven’t seen the security framework so distressed and in disarray and challenged as it is right now in ’23 across the globe. We see that heat and light here in the Indo-Pacific, and it’s a challenge each day to make sure that we have the right formations, the right posture, and the right dialogue with our allies and partners to be ready together. Again, absent a NATO-like organization, we do a lot bilaterally with the countries in the region.
So the last thing I’ll leave you with is all of my time as a general officer the last five years has been out here forward in the Indo-Pacific. So in that five years, we and I personally have seen some dramatic changes. One, the People’s Republic of China has just belied what they want to do and some of the statements they’ve made publicly in some fora like the Shangri-La Dialogue, where the foreign minister says Asia is not for Asians, it’s for China – the future is China and the region. And that’s okay as long as it’s agreed upon, but a lot of countries don’t want that and the bellicose statements that come forward.
Two, the COVID response – when the PRC was telling countries to recognize them, not Taiwan, and then we’ll give you COVID vaccines to help save your people – was seen with an upturned eye with a lot of countries in the region and the globe, that the coercive diplomacy is seen for what it is.
And lastly in the region, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the second invasion of Ukraine as I mentioned earlier, has caused a lot of the folks and leaders in the region to take stock and take notice. And I see that particularly here in Japan and I see that in the first island chain itself. And when I talk to my Japanese counterparts about lessons learned that transfer or are transferrable to this region from the security environment, they use the geographic model that’s happening in Eastern Europe right now. And I’ll go back to the map and point to it. The Japanese who I work with each day consider Japan is like Poland; the Philippines is like Romania; China is like Russia; Taiwan is Ukraine. That’s a useful tool to try to understand the security environment in Europe and where it could be a challenge similar to here in the Indo-Pacific in the first island chain. I would argue that’s not exactly the national models; they don’t comport exactly like that. But that’s where Japan sees their role to help prevent a conflict and defend their country by having more capabilities and more ties with likeminded partners and allies like the United States invested in exercises, invested in capabilities forward to increase that deterrence framework and help them deter in this environment.
So I’ll pause there and open up to questions. I know we have a couple that are, I think, selected, and then we’ll open up to other questions, and willing to go anywhere.
My last shameless plug is LANPAC from Association of United States Army is happening in Hawaii in the middle of May, and that is a great forum for professional industries, think tanks, and military forces to see with our allies and partners who are also attending in the region, in Honolulu. A lot of these questions and issues. We’ll have eight panels there that talk about just what I said in more detail, particularly the Ukraine-Russia relevant lessons learned that could be transferred in this region, so we’ve got to be wary. But that’s a great venue annually that the Association of United States Army puts on with U.S. Army Pacific and other forces to help us understand the environment and share some observations along with industry as well.
So, Katie, I’ll turn it back over to you and I’ll stop talking at this point. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We will now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. Our first question was submitted in advance. It goes to Christopher Woody of Insider in Washington, D.C. “How have the roles and planning of Japan’s army and of U.S. Army Japan evolved as the Japanese military has shifted its focus to the defense of the country’s southwest, which is largely an air and maritime theater?”
MAJOR GENERAL VOWELL: That is very – that’s a great question, very germane to now, and going back to what I said from five years ago. The defense of Japan was primarily focused on aggression from North Korea – potential crises or conflicts with North Korea, and how Japan and their sovereignty could be impacted by that. That was five years ago.
Now its focused on the southwest islands, because the greater threat to Japan’s sovereignty is the People’s Republic of China, particularly the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the – that’s doing drills in the East China Sea and distant sea operations east of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands.
So southwest islands on this map, if I may – here, Yonaguni, closest to Taiwan. About a hundred kilometers from Taipei, so about 65 miles from Taipei. You have Miyako, Ichikawa, Okinawa, Amami Island – sovereign Japanese territories that have been. And there’s some key terrain discussions that Japan is worried about that – and any military operation that China has said that they would reserve the right to use military force to intervene in Taiwan, that the People’s Liberation Army would have to at least block if not outright seize some of those islands to isolate Taiwan from an intervention by Western forces, if that’s the U.S., Japan, or whomever. It’s just key terrain.
So Japan looks at that and they see the threat from Chinese coast guard militias that have pushed out Japanese fishermen around the islands. They’ve seen all of these naval and air activities that have happened in and around Japanese exclusive economic zones. And just recently, when Speaker Pelosi visited Taiwan, the PRC launched eight missiles over Taiwan. Several of those, we believe, deliberately landed in the exclusive economic zone of Japan, in the waters off these islands as a strategic message.
And so all that to say, the focus has shifted to the real problem today and tomorrow, which is protecting the sovereignty of Japan, main effort in the southwest islands. We see that together very clearly, very soberly, as the greatest security challenge. We have a large number of Joint Forces in Okinawa, and so the discussions we’ve been working on is how to help Japan better posture the defense of the southwest islands, and we do that in several ways.
One, the exercises we do through the year, of which I’m responsible for several of them at large-scale exercises – Yama Sakura and Orient Shield, for example – focus on that scenario, a scenario where Japan’s sovereignty in the islands is compromised or flat-out invaded. And it’s a useful way to make sure that the defense posture is right. We learn lessons from these exercises to go forward and plan better.
The second thing we do is Japan has recognized for a while they need capabilities in those islands. And so what we’ve done is asked where they need support from the U.S. military in a bilateral way for some of these contingencies. As I mentioned, it’s known that we have a pretty good presence with Marines, Navy, and Air Force, and some of my Army forces in Okinawa, and that’s where they are. So the discussion is, how can we support them in some of the island locations in a contest or in a conflict? And that focus of questioning has brought us to the table many times on some options that we can provide from the military instrument back to our policymakers in their country and in my country about those kind of investments of capabilities. And one of those has been the Multi-Domain Task Force from the Army, which provides a capability – will inside that first island chain, in particular southwest islands, to fracture potentially the anti-access area denial capabilities of the PLA.
We live in the weapons engagement zone here, in Tokyo, and certainly a lot more in the southwest islands from both North Korea and China, with a vast number of magazine depth of missiles, as an example.
Our contribution can be an ability to be inside that, protect from those potential missile strikes and have all options for Japan or the Joint Force, U.S. mil, to maneuver in crisis.
So that’s, I think the quick answer – not so quick answer – on how we’ve worked together with Japan, recognizing the shift in the strategic environment — and the foundation in the region has changed really to the PRC’s unwarranted aggression and what that means for my counterparts here in Japan and how through the military instrument of what I’m responsible for, provide some options going forward for our policymakers to make some of those changes. And Japan – I mentioned the national security document; also released two other documents: their national defense strategy, what used to be called their five-year midterm plan, which is basically their programmatics for what they’re going to procure and acquire in their defense establishment going forward.
All of those documents talked about the southwest island. All those documents talked about counters-strike capability, more investments in land-based coastal defense cruise missiles, and also air defense protection, particularly for those southwest islands recognizing that key terrain and sovereignty of Japan.
So hopefully I’ve answered the question. It’s a complex one and it deserves a better and longer answer, but I’ll pause there.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question was up-voted in the question-and-answer tab. It comes from Jaime Ocon from TaiwanPlus News, who asks: “There have been reports of over 200 U.S. military personnel in Taiwan. Just wanted to ask about the significance possibly of possibly including Taiwan in joint operations, exercises in the future as to rehearse and build the basis for responding to a crisis in the region.”
MAJOR GENERAL VOWELL: Okay. First, what I’ll say is we’ve historically had a military and State Department presence through AIT, and that’s generally been as required by law – the Taiwan Relations Act from 1979 requires the United States to provide defense articles and capabilities for Taiwan as they procure them from what is traditional foreign military sales program. And involved in that are some of the people who come in to train them on those systems.
So I’m just going to say if they bought a tank that was new to Taiwan, we would, through the defense contractor and military, provide trainers to come in on how that tank is operating, how do you shoot it, move it, communicate with it, how you maintain it at scale. So if they bought 40 tanks, et cetera.
So that’s historically been the U.S. military’s contribution for Taiwan, because of the Taiwan Relations Act, by law. That’s what the law prescribes us to do. Not recognizing Taiwan as a country is the United States policy and has been since the Taiwan Relations Act. But because of the security environment now and Taiwan’s ask for more defense articles and more capability, more planning, the U.S. military is working with the State Department, the American Institute of Taiwan, AIT, to make sure they understand a framework for a potential defense in that country with defense articles. And so, I think what we’re seeing is not what you saw – if you’ve asking, not what you saw in Ukraine where a bunch of U.S. military went into Ukraine in 15 and helped train all the regiments and battalion battlegroups tactical operations on how to move their formations, and they did rehearsals, and it’s less that. That was a different construct, and this is more aligned with what our policy and law tells us to do and has always told us to do in relation to Taiwan.
MODERATOR: All right. For our next question we will go to the live queue, Tim Kelly of Reuters. Tim, you should be able to unmute yourself now.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MAJOR GENERAL VOWELL: I can, Tim.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for talking to us today. So you addressed the three documents that Japan announced in December. But I just wanted to ask you a little bit more detail about this in terms of five years down the line, when this plan is finished, what’s that actually going to mean on the ground, for the way you – day-to-day operations, the way that you operate with the Japanese. What additional capability that’s going to bring to the table and how that’s going to fit in or how that’s going to integrate with U.S. capability, which is also changing as well.
And then sort of related to this, just a look at potential sort of challenges in this military buildup. One of those is the logistics side, often overlooked but very important for any military operation. Japan doesn’t really have much lift capability for its SDF, at least not enough that it would need – if there was a contingency in Taiwan, and the need to rely on merchant ships, which historically is difficult as well because of legacies from the Second World War?
So would you just sort of talk about the logistical challenges that may occur as this build goes on? Thank you.
MAJOR GENERAL VOWELL: Yeah, thanks. So I’ll address the first part, which I think you were asking five years from now, what are those capabilities. From the U.S., I know we’ve offered from the Marine Corps their transitioning, some of their capabilities into marine littoral regiments, which provide a more tailed capability inside the first island chain from what their current and infantry regiment structure is. And so that’s evolving now, on existing forces that are here, but it more addresses the capabilities that the Marines would need to support the JFMCC, the Joint Force Maritime Component Command, from those islands or the littoral placed. So they’re on the work, the Marine Corps are, to transform those capabilities in here to do that. And that’s what on plan between now and 2030. The Marines call it Marine Force 2030.
I think we’ve already seen some of those in play. Som of those dudes are activated and some of their equipment is coming in with some of their medium-range artillery capabilities as well.
I can speak to the Army. I mentioned Multi-Domain Task Force has been practicing here in exercises since 2019 in some form or fashion. So, we’ll have a capability here in the next five years that does a lot from the cyberspace information environment and electromagnetic spectrum. That will be here to support the Joint Force and deal with that A2/AD, or anti-access/area denial problem.
There’s another component – two other components, really, to the MDTF, and one is the protection component. Think Iron Dome, think medium altitude air defense, and think long-range fires. So there’s medium and long-range fires and hypersonics that exist today. The batteries up at JBLM, Joint Base Lewis McChord, in Washington state. And they’re making a down-select on munitions in ’24.
Those will probably come later. That’s a different discussion because those are long-range weapons in Japan and we don’t necessarily need those in Japan to help support the Joint Force. We need the other capabilities – those non-kinetics, the space cyber EMS information capabilities here in Japan. So that’s one change that is happening based upon the aggregated threats in the region I can speak of.
The second one is happening now, and it’s the second part of your question. The Army has invested back into watercraft and lift, these interconnectors you’re going to need to move short tons of supplies in between these islands. We have LSVs, LCACs, and others. We’re building the medium sea vessel light, or MSVL. The composite watercraft company was activated just last week here in Yokohama North Dock. It’ll have about 300 soldiers – just less than – and about 14 vessels in the next couple of years that support the Joint Force intra-island, intra-theater movement. And by the way, we do this every day. We have 80 of these vessels in prepositioned stocks in Japan. We draw to of them out all the time. And both are in the Philippines now supporting Balikatan with the Marines and joint logistics over the shore. The 2009-2020 Fort McHenry and the Calaboza vessels are in Balikatan now doing that.
We’re just going to grow that at scale, because there’s a huge need to move short tons on the water inside these islands. This archipelagic environment requires that kind of connector capability that just can’t be supported in sufficient volume by air.
Three, you mentioned Japan. So that third strategic document lays out some of the programmatics they want to go after and aspirations for lift, but to my knowledge – and I profess a little ignorance here – I don’t know if they’ve down-selected exactly how they want to go after the sealift and land cargo capabilities in the future. They have discussed commercial solutions, ro-ro vessels, roll-on/roll-off ships that are here, and carrier vessels. Japan is very, very robust with that capability – very, very robust with deep port capabilities with cranes.
So it’s hard-pressed for me to see a scenario where an adversary could completely block the lift capabilities of this country. It would go to other places, other ports. But I don’t have the answer what Japan’s material solution is. They’re in kind of the same boat we were a few years ago, that the army needs to be better supported out here. A few years ago, my Army was divesting a lot of watercraft because the future didn’t look that way when you’re thinking about large-scale ground combat operations, which is my Army’s DNA.
However, comma, we have a responsibility to provide logistics to the Joint Force and our allies and partners. That’s Title 10, United States Code. The Army leads logistics in all theaters. And this theater, there’s a lot of blue water and a lot of blue air. So we’ve got to use that to support the decisive efforts on land, where people and governments live and where contests are really going to be decisive. And that’s why we’re getting back into that lift, and our role is also to help the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces in the southwest islands with our lift capability.
So we’re moving in that vector. I know my Army is. And you’re right, we are insufficient fully today, but we recognized that a few years ago and I think Japan’s really recognized that last year and are looking to change that equation. Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right. Well, that brings us to time. General Vowell, if you have any last words you’re like to say, I’ll turn it back over to you.
MAJOR GENERAL VOWELL: Sure. Again, thank you, everybody. I hope this has been a little bit helpful, a little insight. I think there’s a lot of global challenges that we see strategically. In the Middle East right now there’s a continued challenge there in Iraq and Syria and ISIS and Iran. There’s a continued challenge with Russia-Ukraine and NATO and Eastern Europe. There’s challenges in Latin and South America, challenges in Africa. I could keep going. I could keep going.
But I would say if we don’t get this right, if we don’t get the deterrence, if we don’t stay in a competition phase – economically , diplomatic competition, not military competition – like nations are supposed to do, we could end up in a very, very bad situation. Very bad situation.
And so my role is to acknowledge that, but our mission here is to help our allies and help our leadership with options in crisis. And so they’ve got – our national leadership have a bunch of options they can use and decision space that is supportable.
But it’s a great mission. These are great allies and partners, and it’s very real and, quite frankly, it’s an enjoyable mission that we here at USAJ get to do every day. And I thank the soldiers and families for what they do here on the knife edge of freedom, because it’s mostly lost, how important this mission is and how challenging this part of this century is right now.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, General Vowell, and thank you to all our participants for the great questions. I’m sorry we didn’t have time to get to everyone today. We will provide a transcript of this briefing to participating journalists as soon as it is available. And we’d also love to hear your feedback. You can contact us anytime at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can join us for another briefing soon.
MAJOR GENERAL VOWELL: All right. Thanks, Katie.