Japan's military buildup, once dismissed by many as a project
doomed to fail, is proving to be a surprising success at a time of mounting
problems for Western defense.
When Tokyo unveiled its plan in 1986, numerous analysts
wrote it off as unlikely to go very far. Japanese advances, however, are
forcing a reassessment of military prospects for the island nation of
Impressive strides have been made in overcoming an acute
lack of modern arms that has hampered the 245,000-man Japanese Self-Defense
Forces. The SDF, though small, will possess some of the world's most advanced
aircraft, warships, ground combat weapons, and communications equipment.
Among these systems are F-15 interceptors, Patriot
air-defense missiles, AEGIS-equipped destroyers, Yushio-class submarines, new
tanks, sophisticated communications, and advanced SX-3 fighters.
Japanese defensive capabilities are growing steadily. The
judgment of the Pentagon now is that by 1991, Japan will achieve a minimum
force level required to carry out fundamental defense missions. Previously,
Japan fell far short of that goal.
Expanded defense budgets, high-technology prowess, and—until
recently—strong domestic political stability all have contributed to the
Japanese turnabout on defense.
For the US, Japan's progress is a boon as Washington
confronts pressures to cut Pentagon budgets and signs emerge that military
efforts will decline sharply in West European nations. Events in Japan shape
up as a singularly positive development.
One thing has not changed. US protection, codified in a 1960
defense treaty, remains the bedrock of Japan's security.
Also, Japan's involvement with military power still stirs
controversy. Asian neighbors harbor concern about how far Japan may go. In Congress,
by contrast, Tokyo is condemned as a piker, free-riding on the back of the
Tokyo's new military effort comes as an addition to a
broader Japanese thrust that is expanding its influence. Japan's $2.5-trillion economy
has helped make it the world's greatest supplier of capital. Japan is set to
become the largest foreign-aid donor. Even on the diplomatic front, Tokyo has
begun to make waves.
Surveying Tokyo's defense plan, Henry Kissinger declared not
long ago that "Japan will emerge as a major military power in the not-too-distant
Well, maybe, but the former Secretary of State might have
been laying it on a bit thick. Japan has no plans to acquire the long-range
strike aircraft, missiles, or offensive naval forces of a conventional great
power. Nuclear weapons are proscribed. But Kissinger was right about the
determination with which Japan would pursue its modest goals. The 1986-90
Mid-Term Defense Program projected spending of $132 billion (at prevailing exchange
rates in 1987); it has been fully funded in each of its first four years, and
the same is virtually certain in 1990. Spending will top $31 billion in 1989.
With one year left in the MTDP, notes a recent Pentagon
report, Japan has now achieved eighty-eight percent of its goal for tanks, eighty-two
percent for artillery, eighty- nine percent for destroyers, eighty percent for
submarines, seventy-five percent for interceptors, and 100 percent for
Nowhere is the impact of the Japanese effort more apparent
than in the 45,000-strong air force.
The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF), with 340
front-line combat aircraft, can put aloft more planes than the US has
permanently based in the Far East. By the end of 1990, Japan will deploy 400
warplanes in ten interceptor squadrons, three fighter-support squadrons, and
Today, nine squadrons of US-designed, Japanese-built F-15s
and F-4Es form the backbone of Japan's air defense interceptor force. In a
crisis, the ASDF could call on 130 new F-15DJ jets and another 129 F-4EJ Phantom
II planes. These forces are armed with AIM-7 Sparrow III and AIM-9 Sidewinder
Plans call for Japan to form a tenth full fighter squadron
by 1993 with new-production F-15s.
Today, most ASDF missions entail intercepting Soviet
fighters and reconnaissance aircraft entering Japanese airspace to the north of
the island of Hokkaido. Japan confronts several hundred of these intrusions
In war, Japan's air force would also be charged with
providing support to ground and naval forces. The mainstay of the interdiction
mission today is the fleet of about seventy-five Japanese-built F-1
fighter-bombers, organized into three squadrons. These are armed with Japan's
Type-89 air-to-surface missile and with conventional ordnance.
A World-Class Fighter
The F-1 force is a weakness. Thus, two years ago, the US and
Japan announced plans to jointly develop a new support fighter in a project to
cost more than $8.2 billion, based on a projected production run of at least
130 planes. The fighter, known in the US as the FSX and in Japan as the SX-3,
is to be based on the General Dynamics F-16, but with heavy infusions of
Under current plans, a prototype of the SX-3, expected to be
one of the world's finest fighters, will fly in 1993. The ASDF will organize a
new wing to operate the SX-3. The first squadron will be in place in 1998, with
two more to come soon after.
The ASDF is undergoing a modernization program to improve
its reconnaissance and early warning capabilities. Today, Japan's reconnaissance
mission is based on the fourteen-plane squadron of RF-4EJ planes. The fleet is
scheduled to get upgraded reconnaissance packages. The first prototype is to
reach operational status next year. ASDF's fleet of eight E-2C Hawkeye airborne
early warning craft will expand to ten by 1991.
Japan's navy, the Maritime Self-Defense Force, has come far.
In a crisis, Tokyo would rely on the 44,000 men of the
Japanese fleet to keep open critical sea-lanes or to blunt seaborne attack.
Five regional naval commands defend specific geographic areas. A high-seas
fleet would operate further from home.
Already, the MSDF could go to sea with fourteen attack submarines,
fifty destroyers, seventeen frigates, forty-six amphibious craft of various
sizes, thirty-seven mine-warfare ships, and fourteen small patrol combatants.
The MSDF operates about 100 support, training, and survey ships.
By 1991, Japan plans to reach its goal of deploying sixty
destroyers—twice the number in the US Seventh Fleet, which operates across the
entire western Pacific. The attack-submarine fleet will probably level off at
sixteen or seventeen boats when the program is complete. Some 100 P-3C Orion
submarine-hunter aircraft, assembled in Japan by Kawasaki Heavy Industries,
will be flying.
For antiair warfare, Japan is to build at least three, and
perhaps four, destroyers outfitted with the US-developed, ultrahigh-capacity
AEGIS air-defense system. The first of the class will be launched in 1991. The
ships will greatly strengthen fleet defense against missile and aircraft
Japan's ability to wage antisubmarine warfare against
Soviet undersea craft will improve. Aging Japanese Uzushio-class boats are
being replaced with Yushio- and Improved Yushio-class submarines. Japan wants
a sophisticated sonic depth-finder vessel for ASW. Also on tap: more and better
equipment useful in tracking USSR naval movements, plus new ASW helicopters.
Less conspicuous but no less important has been Japan's
modest upgrading of its army, referred to as the Ground Self-Defense Force, or
Goals that will soon be met include deployment to specific
regions of twelve active divisions, with between 7,000 and 9,000 troops each,
and three composite brigades; one armored division and additional armored,
helicopter, and airborne brigades for mobile warfare; and eight antiaircraft
The Army, responsible for ground combat, amphibious landings,
some ground-based air defense, and close air support, stands at only 156,000
troops, below the authorized level of 180,000. Even so, Japan's Army has
embarked on several weapon-update programs to be completed in the 1990s.
Foreign acquisitions include the American Patriot
air-defense SAM system and the US 227-mm Multiple Launch Rocket System.
Japan plans to produce Type-90 THX main battle tanks to
replace its aging inventory of Japanese Type-61 models. The GSDF's units
possess a total of nearly 1,200 main battle tanks, half of them Type-61s, and 700
armored vehicles of all classes.
Overall, notes a recent General Accounting Office
assessment, Japan is now close to meeting all its defense goals. There is
progress in lower-profile areas, such as more coordination between the various
services. US military officers applaud Japan for coming so far in a short
Says one Pentagon study: "Japan is making rapid
progress towards the military capability to fulfill its agreed mission—i.e.,
the defense of its territory, including air and sea lanes to an offshore
distance of 1,000 nautical miles."
No one, however, thinks even that limited task would be
easy. Soviet forces also have improved. Adm. Huntington Hardisty, US Pacific
Commander, points out that in the past four years Moscow has deployed to the
Pacific advanced Akula submarines, MiG-31 fighters, and long-range bombers with
With an 8,485-mile coastline, Japan naturally focuses its
attention on maritime and coastal defense operations. Heavy concentrations of
Soviet airpower around Vladivostok make air defense an additional concern.
Japanese forces would be called on to repel a limited
assault on the home islands. Japan would also face the tasks of combating
Soviet submarines and airpower in its vicinity and monitoring the passage of
Soviet submarines and other warships through straits connecting the Sea of
Japan with open ocean.
For all its improvement, say analysts, the GSDF's ability
to undertake such sustained combat leaves much to be desired.
Radars and vital air bases, for example, still go undefended.
The Air Force, lacking refueling capabilities, can't provide air defense cover
or strike support for ships at more than moderate distances. Day-to-day
readiness and combat sustainability are problematic. Survivability of
critical installations is doubtful. Command control and communications would be
tenuous at best.
Such weaknesses presumably will be addressed in Japan's next
defense plan, covering the years 199195 and due next fall. The Japan Defense
Agency already has begun work on it. The government has affirmed its intent to
seek long-term real growth in funding.
The Pentagon maintains that it is important that the next
defense plan continue improvements in air defense, anti-invasion and antisubmarine
warfare, and C31 capabilities, as well as combat sustainability and
Japan evidently will do so. The GAO investigation of the
Japanese program reports that Tokyo is giving serious thought to acquiring an
over-the-horizon radar system, three to four new squadrons of interceptors,
eighteen to twenty refueling aircraft, twelve to sixteen long-range early
warning aircraft, and fifteen to twenty large air transports, plus readiness
Japanese politicians, however, will face some hard
questions. One of the most important, Japanese observers maintain, will be
whether to set a new force goal for the SDF. Some believe that a larger
military is in order, but any move in that direction is sure to cause a
Another major question concerns extending the range of
Japan's aircraft. Building a modest refueling capability is one option. Tokyo
is also evaluating the use of small aircraft carriers with updated AV-8B
Harrier II jump jets on board. Either scheme could run afoul of domestic politics.
To many in Japan, range-extension would make the aircraft "offensive"
military equipment, prohibited by Japan's pacifist constitution.
Domestic opinion is not the only constraint. Japan must
satisfy its Asian neighbors—in particular, China, South Korea, and the nations
of Southeast Asia—that its power will remain nonthreatening.
Some nations worry that Japan is on the road to becoming a
military power again, despite Pentagon assurances that "Japan is still
doing the minimum necessary to meet its defense goals, goals which are clearly
Japan openly professes, in fact, that US military power
remains and will continue to remain the ultimate guarantor of its national
survival. Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, on his recent visit to Washington, emphasized
the need to "ensure the effective operation of US-Japan security
A Pentagon report is more direct: "The Japanese force
structure requires the presence of complementary US forces to remain
The American presence in and around Japan is substantial,
about 65,000 US troops on Japanese territory or waters. The largest segment, a
38,000-man Marine Expeditionary Force, is based on the island of Okinawa. USAF
maintains in Japan some 16,200 personnel and three squadrons of F-15C/Ds, two
squadrons of F-16s, and eighteen of RF-4Cs. The Navy has a major presence in
the Western Pacific and a major facility at Yokusuka.
In recent years, cooperation between US and Japanese forces
has improved markedly. Japanese naval forces, for example, now exercise with
Pacific Fleet and other friendly Pacific navies.
A Sense of Grievance
Even so, the Tokyo-Washington relationship is becoming a
troubled one, for reasons that have more to do with domestic politics and economies
than with security matters.
The most fundamental problem causing friction between the
two allies is the lopsided economic relationship between Japan, the world's
biggest creditor nation, and the US, the largest debtor. Last year, Japan's
trade surplus with the US fell by $8 billion, but it still came to $52 billion.
In addition, Americans and Japanese alike have been wounded
by bitter disputes over technology exports. On the US side, Americans felt
betrayed when it was revealed that Toshiba Corp. illegally sold the Soviet
Union sensitive milling technology, which was then used to manufacture quiet
propellers for Soviet nuclear attack submarines.
Japan's sense of grievance was fueled by the Bush
Administration's reopening and modification of the US-Japan SX-3 agreement
after Tokyo thought a deal had been struck. Japan believed it was being made
into a scapegoat for US economic weakness and mismanagement.
Compounding the tensions is an increasingly sharp dispute
over "burden-sharing." Japan resents congressional charges that it is
shirking its defense obligations. Tokyo points out that it no longer holds
defense expenditures below one percent of its gross national product, as it did
officially for ten years. It points to the fact that Japan now has the third
largest defense budget in the world, surpassed only by the two superpowers.
$45,000 per American
Host-nation support for US bases and troops in Japan is
higher than ever. When all factors are considered, says Tokyo, it contributes
the equivalent of $2.7 billion annually to upkeep of American forces based in
Japan. That works out to about $45,000 per US serviceman.
Many members of Congress remain distinctly unimpressed by
these arguments. They note that, though the one-percent limit no longer is
official policy, defense budgets remain only slightly above that level. The US
outlay is closer to six percent of GNP. They add that much of the growth in
Japan's arms spending, calculated in US dollars, stems not from new commitments
but from the spectacular rise in value of the yen compared to the performance
of the US dollar.
"The Japanese have a long way to go on the
burden-sharing front," charges Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat
who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. "Their support of US
forces in Japan is generous, but considering they only spend one percent of
their [GNP] on defense, they can afford to be much more generous."
A recently completed Defense Department report on
burden-sharing supports Schroeder's charge. In its analysis of the defense
performances of the US, Japan, and America's NATO allies, Japan receives the
lowest possible rating in six of the nine areas in which it can be judged. West
Germany, by comparison, rates high or highest in eight of fourteen areas in
which it can be judged and medium in another three.
GNP per capita in Japan is $19,500, compared to that in the
US of $18,200. Even so, the average Japanese spends only $200 on defense, vs.
$1,200 for the average American.
Congress voted overwhelmingly in 1987 to urge Japan to
triple defense spending to three percent of GNP. The question is where Tokyo
would spend it all. Richard Armitage, the former Assistant Secretary of
Defense for International Security Affairs, estimated that Japan could buy
everything on its wish list for the equivalent of two percent of its GNP. A
significantly higher level of spending, he implied, would transform Japan into
a truly formidable military power.
Japan's military effort has made strong progress against
heavy odds. The trick for Tokyo now will be to navigate between the insistent
demands of a superpower patron and the dangers of military excess.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag