A top security issue for the incoming Biden administration must be forging closer technology ties with Japan as a counterweight to the trinity of mutual adversaries we face in Asia.
The ascendancy of China combined with the technological know-how of Russia and the ever-mercurial North Korean regime present a combined threat that is increasingly destabilizing to the region and highly worrisome for both Washington and Tokyo. As a result, nurturing the U.S.-Japan relationship has never been more important.
President-elect Joe Biden and new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga must find ways to improve the relationship and telegraph strength and cooperation to dissuade adversaries. One essential way to do this is for both countries to work closer on procurement of weapons and weapon systems.
The United States and Japan have traditionally worked well together on specific, one-off projects where Japanese companies have demonstrated expertise. For example, the anti-ballistic missile that shot down a mock North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile in November was a joint product of Raytheon and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
According to an April study by the Atlantic Council, other efforts that the two countries are working on together include unmanned systems, defense applications of artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles and space technologies.
Where things can improve are in procurement of dual-use technologies. Japanese firms have many commercial off-the-shelf technologies with military applications, such as microelectronics and 5G, that are Pentagon priorities. But the ability to share these technologies has been limited due to export restrictions in both countries.
Both governments have been chipping away at these restrictions during the past few years by mitigating the bureaucratic hurdles that have inhibited greater cooperation.
First, under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japanese government was increasingly willing to cooperate with the United States. This includes partially embracing the right to collective self-defense through increased technology transfers. His successor, Prime Minister Suga, seems intent on continuing this policy.
Next, the United States has been searching out and working with nontraditional partners in the technology community. One key to this effort has been the military’s use other transaction authority, a contracting tool to get around the Pentagon’s notoriously bureaucratic procurement policies and encourage dual-use innovators to work with the military. Under OTAs, the time it takes to develop prototypes of weapons and weapon systems is reduced from years to months.
In addition, Japan is rejiggering export rules for specific military needs. In one example of this, the Japanese government has asked its counterparts at the Pentagon to be more detailed about the technologies it is interested in so that Japan can change regulations blocking these transfers. The Pentagon in turn has removed barriers that allow Japanese companies to partner with U.S. firms on key, dual-use contracts.
Finally, U.S. policy is primed for a bilateral engagement on emerging technology with Japan. In October, the White House released the National Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies, and in December, it released its National Space Policy. Both strategies recognize the importance of international cooperation with trusted allies, such as Japan.
With legalities out of the way, it is now time for action.
On the U.S. side, the Biden administration’s incoming undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment should instruct agencies that use OTAs to reach out to organizations, such as the Hawaii-based Pacific International Center for High Technology Research. These third parties should distribute targeted opportunities to U.S. OTA performers and their vetted Japanese technology partners.
On Japan’s side, the Suga government should instruct the Japan External Trade Organization to market these opportunities to Japanese innovators, particularly in the areas of space, hypersonics, trusted microelectronics and additive technologies. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry should then issue the necessary export control waivers.
By forging greater technology ties with Japan, there is an opportunity to ensure access to the technology U.S. forces need for deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary. Such an alliance would ensure U.S. leadership in the Pacific.
Benjamin McMartin is managing partner of the Public Spend Forum, an international public procurement data firm. He previously served as the chief of acquisition management at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center. Bernice Glenn is a senior consultant with C5BDI, a strategic planning, management and business development consulting firm. She was also most recently a U.S-Japan relations analyst at consortium manager NSTXL.