MELBOURNE, Australia — Japan intends to procure more F-35 fighter jets, shipborne unmanned aircraft and submarines, according to newly released midterm defense guidelines and an associated defense plan.
The long-awaited documents, released Tuesday afternoon Tokyo time and formally approved by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, would see Japan spend almost $243 billion on defense over the next five fiscal years, which in Japan begins April 1 and ends March 31 the following year.
Known as the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-Term Defense Plan, or MTDP, the documents outline Japan’s defense policy and outlook for the next five fiscal years as the country grapples with the rising economic and military power by regional rival China and the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
The biggest news to come out of the MTDP was the confirmation that Japan will seek to add to its buy of an additional 105 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, which would include 42 F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing aircraft, although this was not much of a surprise, as Japan’s Ministry of Defense had briefed a number of reporters about the details prior to the guidelines' release.
But the MTDP provided more details, particularly that Japan plans to acquire 45 F-35s, including 18 "B" models over the next five years, with the remainder of Japan’s F-35 force being the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant.
The F-35s will allow the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to up its number of fighter squadrons by one, to 13 total, most likely by converting the JASDF’s photo-reconnaissance unit into a fighter squadron as it retires the Mitsubishi RF-4 Phantom aircraft sometime in 2020.
The MTDP also said Japan will seek to introduce three shipborne unmanned aerial systems during the next five years, although details were scarce. These will likely take the form of vertical-takeoff-and-landing UAS for operations onboard a new class of eight multipurpose destroyers Japan is currently building.
Defense News learned that Japan has sought information about the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout as far back as 2016, although the government has not committed to an acquisition.
Local industry to benefit
Japan’s defense industry is set to benefit from the procurement plans outlined in the MTDP, with several projects being handled by local companies.
In addition to modifications of two Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to operate the F-35B, Japan will also bulk up its maritime patrol aircraft fleet with 12 more Kawasaki P-1s expected in the next five years. This will mark a resumption in Japan’s procurement in the type after not having done so in the past four budget cycles.
Under the MTDP, The P-1s would be joined by a more modest increase in airlift capabilities, including three more Kawasaki C-2 airlifters and a similar number of CH-47JA Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, which are locally assembled by Kawasaki under licence from Boeing.
The government’s plan also seeks an increase in the country’s defense-related footprint in space and improved cyber capabilities, as well as a buildup of multi- and cross-domain capabilities.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.