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.
"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.
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.
"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.
"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.