TOKYO — Japan's defense buildup, while designed to give the nation's planners a platform to meet emerging threats over the next decade, faces questions about technology integration and how it can afford tomorrow's weapon systems.
However, there are signs that Japan is finally reaching coming to a partial solution to its perennial procurement problems.
For decades, the Defense Ministry's plans have been driven by two conflicting systems: at odds with each other: 10ten-year National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPGs) divided into two five5-year Mid-Term Defense Programs. These which provide a degree of strategic planning and annual budgeting that forces small-lot procurement — thereby driving up costs — which in turn pressures decision-makers planning choices as weapons platform prices continue to climb.
Following Japan's December 2014 National Security Strategy, the MoD's current NDPG has budgeted ¥23.97 trillion (US $199.5 billion) over the next five years to fund military expansion and create a more flexible "Dynamic Joint Defense Force," which is no longer aimed at deterring a Soviet invasion from the north.
With this strategy, Towards this, and looking to defend its Japan's southeastern island chain, Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) will slash halve its main battle tank fleet with from 740 to 300 and replace them with up to 300 lighter maneuver combat vehicles (MCVs), while adding be adding 52 AAV-7 amphibious landing vehicles, seven Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from the US, and CH-47JA transport helicopters.
"In the medium term [up until 2020] I think we will see some focus on enhancing Japan's amphibious capabilities. Japan has already made the first institutional moves to setting up a Japanese 'marines' in the form of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, and is acquiring/looking to acquire Ospreys and AAVs," said Corey Wallace, a Japan security policy expert at New Zealand's University of Auckland.
On top of the latest 24,000-ton Izumo-class helicopter carrier, capable of carrying seven Mitsubishi-built SH-60K antisubmarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and seven AgustaWestland MCM-101 mine countermeasure helicopters or seven F-35B STOVL variant joint strike fighters and up to 400 troops, to form a four-ship ASW battle group, the Marine Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) will receive five destroyers, five submarines and 23 P-1 aircraft, and two more Aegis cruisers will be a major improvement for Japan's ballistic missile defenses.
Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, called the Izumo "a big step in the right direction" toward creating a better-integrated joint-service flexible force for the post-2020 era.
"The next generation just might get things right. Japan should finally build amphibious ships designed specifically for amphibious operations — instead of erstwhile amphibious ships that are disguised as something else, such as anti-submarine helicopter carriers — and lack important capabilities. Japan also needs more amphibious ships," he said.
"Speaking of amphibious capabilities, Japan needs to invest more in ship-to-shore connectors beyond the [air-cushioned landing craft] and the old-model AAVs currently being procured from the United States," Newsham said.
"Once Japan's amphibious force is operational and JSDF starts operating farther afield, it will find it needs more ships given wear and tear and operational requirements. One would like to see a joint-development effort between Japanese and US companies for next-generation advanced amphibious assault vehicles. Following the [Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle] fiasco, the US Marines in particular could benefit from Japanese propulsion technologies and design and manufacturing capabilities," Newsham said.
Meanwhile, the Air Self-Defense Forces are receiving better patrol, surveillance and transport capabilities by acquiring four early warning aircraft, 28 F-35As, and three aerial refueling and transport aircraft. Not least, three Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs and long-range surveillance planes will be acquired to patrol the East China Sea.
"The fighter gap needs to be addressed and more money spent on upgrading more F-15s to cover the period between now and when F-35s are available," Newsham said.
"And even then, Japan should combine 4th and 5th generation fighters rather than relying exclusively on F-35s to sweep the skies clean. Hopefully, Japan is not putting all its eggs in one basket when the F-35 enters service," he added.
Narushige Michishita, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said the current NDPG have been designed to give Japan a large "menu" of technology platforms and choices from which planners can make decisions on new pathways for the middle of the next decade. The problem, he said, was budgets, which are severely limiting choices for larger platforms.
For example, according to AMI International estimates, Japan is spending about $12 billion on its maritime forces, centered on flexible big-deck aviation and amphibious ships, a world-class submarine force, and Aegis-equipped destroyers, but can afford little more without adopting a US style offset strategy, according to AMI Affiliate Consultant Bob Nugent.
But new technological paths are creating possible opportunities, pathways, along with procurement reform. The MoD is looking at a range of UAVs and UUV options to provide more cost-effective replacements to manned systems.
"With unmanned systems potentially playing a greater part in Japan's defense beyond 2020, then this might mix things and make the acquisition of a large tonnage explicit naval aviation platform not so pressing," Wallace said.
MoD also is planning to establish a major procurement reform with the founding of a new Defense Procurement Agency (DPA) before April 2016. The DPA will first aim to decrease procurement stovepiping among of procurement between the three services and encourage domestic Japanese industry to seek co-development alliances with international partners. It also will take aim at Japan's small-lot procurement bottleneck.
"Japan's defense procurement scheme manages to cover the waterfront in terms of what's necessary, but unless the JSDF services learn to operate jointly, Japan will only get a fraction of the benefit in terms of overall defense capability.
"The Japanese defense budget is too small so Japan ends up buying a few of many things, but generally not enough of any one thing," Newsham said.
But from this year the MoD has started to purchase major programs in large lots. While it was unable to do this with the F-35, the MoD is going to procure 20 P-1 patrol aircraft for 2022 delivery for the MSDF in one lot for a total cost of around ¥339.6 billion, yen, saving nearly ¥41.7 billion, yen, according to MoD figures.
"Japan needs a defense industrial policy. It doesn't have one. A key part of this policy would be a systematic effort to improve capabilities and the industrial base in specific areas, such as cybersecurity, command and control, surveillance, electronics, and unmanned vehicles, via overseas mergers and acquisitions and buying targeted intellectual property. The government will need to play a leading role in this effort," Newsham said.