Tokyo — Japan's Self-Defense Force is a paper tiger, charges Michita Sakata, former defense minister. The problem is not a small defense budget or lack of modern arms, but a dangerous imbalance between frontline weaponry and rear support services, according to Mr. Sakata.
"The newspapers are full of stories that the new Reagan administration wants Japan to take on a larger share of the defense burden in the western Pacific," Mr. Sakata said in a recent interview.
"I am concerned about something much more fundamental than burden-sharing. That is our ability to defend ourselves against enemy attack -- in other words, the credibility of our existing Self-Defense Force."
Another defense expert, Prof. Masamichi Inoki, who directs the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo, put it this way.
"If you visit a self-defense unit in the field, as I have done, and ask a commander what he most needs, he won't say he wants more tanks, or more guns. He will say he wants more ammunition. He will say he wants more fuel.
"For nuclear deterrence, Japan must rely on the United States. There is no substitute for the security treaty with the US. But at least we must have denial capacity -- the capacity to keep an enemy force from landing on our shores and to destroy him if he does.
"We have a pretty good Japan-made tank -- the T-74 -- and we are buying the fore does not infringe the Constitution.
Mr. Sakata's major achievement as defense minister was a Cabinet decision reached in November 1976 to establish a "national defense program outline" setting specific targets for the Self-Defense Force without, however, setting a specific timetable. The targets were designed to make the force immediately usable, with strengthened armor, antisubmarine, and early-warning systems.
Since leaving the defense portfolio, Mr. Sakata has kept up his interest in the field as chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's security affairs committee and as chairman of the new special committee on security affairs of the House of Representatives.
"If we are to deal with the United States on an equal footing in defense matters," Mr. Sakata says, "we must have a prime minister who understands what defense is all about and who will appoint a strong defense minister to whom he gives full backing."
Since Mr. Sakata, there have been six defense ministers in four years. The post has little political weight.
"Personally, I am against revising the Constitution," Mr. Sakata continues. "Nor do I think we should engage in burden-sharing except in the economic field. "But if our voice is to be convincing in international councils, we must have a minimum usable defense capability."
Mr. Sakata also wants a larger defense budget. But his primary concern is not so much the budget itself, as the underlying concept.
"After all," he said, "every country, large or small, has a primary responsibility for its own defense. And it tries to fulfill this responsibility by maintaining usable defense forces.
"In our case, we have put a fair amount of effort into frontline weaponry. But without hardened shelters for aircraft, for instance, all our sophisticated fighters could be destroyed on the ground in a matter of minutes.
"Our logistics, our supports services, our communications are all sadly inadequate. I would say we have a Self-Defense Force that has only 50 percent of the overall capability it should have. Until it does, we are not a credible defense force and we are not even pulling our own weight, let alone sharing the burdens of others."
Mr. Sakata is not generally regarded as a hawk. Mild mannered, he has the air of a college professor, and he gets on well with Socialist and other opposition politicians who are against Japan's entire defense effort. A veteran legislator, he turned his interest from education to defense six years ago when he accepted the post of minister of state and director-general of the defense agency in the Takeo Miki Cabinet (1974-76).
This is the cumbersome title by which the minister in charge of defense is known. Officially, there is no defense ministry, only an agency under the overall charge of the prime minister. Japan's extreme sensitivity on defense issues is well known and dates back to memories of prewar militarism, defeat in World War II, and the adoption of a Constitution banning "war potential" and the right to go to war. Japan's Self-Defense Force exists only because of an interpretation by successive governments that the right of self-defense is "inherent" and there- latest American fighter plane, the F-15. But these weapons are largely for show. Without a balanced capacity across the board, in weapons, in logistics, in communications, in command and control, our Self-Defense Force has no credibility."
Last year, Professor Inoki headed an advisory committee that recommended to the prime minister that Japan increase its defense bubget (now roughly $12 billion) by 20 percent every year for the next five years in order to increase expenditure on equipment Equipment expenditures, now about 20 percent of the overall defense budget, would rise to 40 percent.
"If you increase the defense budget by 6 or 7 percent a year, as we have been doing recently, we will never have enough to carry out the overall improvements we need," said Mr. Inoki. "Personnel costs rise each year, and inflation alone accounts for 3 to 4 percent of the annual increase."