More Muscle: A Japanese Atago-class guided missile destroyer sails in formation with US Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force ships. Japan initially wants to add two of the destroyers. (MC2 Adam Thomas/ / US Navy)
TOKYO — Japan is making good on its pledge to beef up its defense force and come to the aid of neighbors if they’re attacked, proposing a budget that returns spending to its peak in the 1990s.
Japan’s Defense Ministry has requested a budget increase of 2.4 percent in 2015 for a total budget of ¥4.9 trillion (US $47.25 billion), solidifying a reversal from a decade of declines during the 2000s.
Citing the need to counter growing instability in East Asia, the MoD said its most pressing need is to improve its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, particularly regarding maritime and ballistic missile threats, and to deter potential aggression to the nation’s far-flung southern island chain.
Among its biggest items, the MoD is requesting ¥378.1 billion to deploy 20 of the PC-3 replacement Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft in groups of five between 2018 and 2021. The second big-ticket item is two new Atago-class Aegis destroyers, with the goal of expanding Japan’s Aegis fleet to eight ships by the end of fiscal 2020.
The third is a request for ¥131.5 billion for six F-35A joint strike fighters for the air self-defense forces, up from the four requested for the current year.
The Japanese fiscal year runs April through March. The ¥4.9 trillion figure reflects the MoD’s own figures for its budget request. Additional items such as new government planes used for diplomatic purposes and administrative costs associated with the realignment of US forces take the figure to ¥5.05 trillion.
While there is continuity between yearly requests, and each follows five-year midterm defense plans, this year’s request cements the commitment by the conservative Abe administration, which came to power in 2012, to reverse a decade-long decline in defense spending, said Christopher Hughes, an expert on Japan’s military, and professor of International Politics and Japanese Studies at the UK’s University of Warwick.
“What the budget request does illustrate is a hardening of Japan’s resolve to stay the course on building up a high-end [Joint Self-Defense Force] with some serious capabilities that can fend off China. So there is no backsliding here; plus, the request for the 2.4 percent increase seems quite significant,” Hughes said.
The request reflects the latest tweaks in Japan’s defense thinking, coming three weeks after the 2014 defense white paper openly criticized China for its “high-handed actions” and “its attempts to change the status quo by coercion.”
The white paper was referring to Japan’s alarm, shared by other East Asian neighbors and the US, at China’s November unilateral establishment of its so-called East China Sea air defense identification zone.
That white paper also identified North Korea as “a serious destabilizing factor to … the entire region and … international community,” and for the first time named the KN-08 mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.
Responding to this, the MoD said it will work closely with the nation’s space agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), to develop space-based ballistic missile early warning capability and mount an experimental infrared sensor on an upcoming JAXA optical reconnaissance satellite.
Building up Japan’s ISR for remote island defense and tracking regional activities is a major priority. The MoD is looking to build up its airborne warning and control system capability, purchase three Global Hawk UAVs, and use a maritime domain awareness satellite constellation being proposed by the nation’s Space Strategy Office to monitor the Chinese Navy in the region.
In terms of putting boots and hardware on the ground, the MoD has already committed to building a small amphibious capability. It will also abolish the 83rd Air Wing and form a new 9th Wing to be deployed in Naha, Okinawa, as well as establish a new forward deployed 303 Coastal Observation Unit, according to the budget request.
While the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) continues upgrading its portfolio of fighters, including modernizing its F-15s and improving the air-to-air capabilities of its F-2s, the ASDF is over-reliant on the F-35 and Japan’s fighter deployments and plans are insufficient, according to a researcher at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, who asked not to be named.
“Japan may be expecting too much from the F-35; the thinking being that once they have the F-35 the ASDF can sweep the skies clean. Air superiority is indeed the prerequisite for successful military operations. Try conducting naval or amphibious operations without it,” the researcher said. “However, Japan currently has a fighter gap and may find it difficult to maintain air superiority in areas around Japan until the F-35 arrives.”
While the MoD is starting a series of new research and development programs into space-based missile early warning, UAV-based ISR and a new helicopter-deployed submarine detection sonar system, analysts said it seems that Japan is playing catch-up. Its defense spending dropped from around ¥4.9 trillion in 2003 to ¥4.6 trillion in 2012, while China’s quadrupled.
“Japan is showing some serious intent to actually fund its defense build-up… [but] of course, it is nothing on the scale of China, as who would compete with China on spending apart from the US? And much of the increase is just to recover Japan’s lack of spending in previous years,” Hughes said.
Fumio Ota, retired vice admiral of the Marine Self-Defense Force and former director of Japan’s Defense Intelligence Headquarters, said that despite the increase in spending, Japan needs more personnel and must start planning how it can respond to China’s growing ballistic missile submarine fleet and its growing second strike capability. ■