An Update on the Japanese Self Defense Force


By Eugene Gerden

According to recent statements by senior representatives of the Japanese military as well as local defence analysts, Japan is steadily continuing along its path of active defence with the development of a new national defence budget for 2020.

According to statements by the official spokesperson for the Japanese Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya, the new budget will allow Japan to significantly strengthen its military potential over the next several years – to protect its geopolitical interests in the region and to counter potential threats from China and North Korea.

The cost of programs in the defence budget is estimated at 5,5 trillion yen (about US$50 billion), which makes it the largest military budget in the modern history of Japan, since the end of WWII.

In fact, Japanese defence spending has been growing for the second year in a row. In 2019, its defence budget reached 5.3 Trillion yen (US$ 47.4 billion) or about 1% of Japan’s national GDP. Some local analysts believe these figures will continue to grow in the coming years and may reach 3-5% of its GDP within the next decade. That will be comparable to the volume of defence spending that has been recommended by NATO to its members.

One notable aspect of the new program involves resuming the building of aircraft carriers. The use of such ships will mark the first for Japan since the end of World War II. The design of these new aircraft carriers will be based on Izumo-Class multi-purpose destroyers (which were originally ordered as helicopter carriers by the Japanese Defence Ministry) and will serve as a base for F-35B aircraft.

Some Japanese military analysts have noted that Izumo-Class ships may prove useful during potential regional military conflicts, for example, with China over the disputed Senkaku islands.

In the meantime, the plan also provides for gradual replacement of Japan’s Hyūga Class naval helicopter destroyers. The design process for their modern analogues has already begun.

Military Aviation

Japan’s modernization and recapitalization plan included a massive renewal of its fleet of combat aircraft. Since the early 2000s, Japan has held its status as the second largest buyer of U.S. F-35 aircraft (behind the U.S. itself). These aircraft successfully replaced Japan’s F-15J / DJ Eagle models and have resulted in significantly raising the potential of the Japanese Air Force.

As for new purchases, by the end of 2019 at least nine more Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters will be supplied for the needs of the Japanese Air Force. Overall, by 2023, Tokyo plans to purchase up to 20 such aircraft (which are priced at US$130 million each) plus several F-35B short take-off and vertical landing units.

Particular attention will go towards continuing development of the 5th generation fighter. That will take place in cooperation with Lockheed Martin, although Tokyo intends to use its own technologies as much as possible. Some of these technologies will be provided by the Technical Research and Design Institute of the Japanese Ministry of Defense as well as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Corporation, which will also take part in the project.

According to some Japanese media reports, the total cost of the project may exceed 1.5 trillion yen (US$14 billion).

Deliveries of the new aircraft to the Japanese Air Force are scheduled to begin after 2030. They will completely replace the 90 F-2 aircraft currently in the Japanese military aviation fleet. Its armament will include cruise missiles capable of hitting ships with high efficiency.

Most Japanese military analysts consider this project as the most significant advance of Japan’s capabilities in the last several decades.
At the same time, in addition to the new fighter, will be design of specialized Electronic Warfare aircraft that will be capable of suppressing air defence and enemy communications. The use of such aircraft is intended to deter and prevent the launch of enemy missiles on Japanese military targets.

Defending Space Assets

Japan already has a strong civilian space programme and has successfully launched a number of satellites into orbit, and lately, the Prime Minister has been advocating for a special space-defence force to protect its satellites from possible targeting.

To that end, the proposed budget includes funds for a significant strengthening of Japan’s military space assets. The ministry has asked for 52.4 billion yen (US$484 million) to strengthen its outer space capability, including the establishment of a space operations unit within the structure of the Japanese Armed Forces.

Confirming the focus on strengthening defence capabilities in outer space, Prime Minister Abe confirmed on 17 September 2019, that Japan’s existing Air Defence Force may “evolve into the Air and Space SDF” in the future.

As the Japanese Yomiuri business paper recently reported, the space unit will be formed by 2020 and will include a highly sensitive radar, an optical telescope. and a special tracking system. The unit will be located on the Japanese Air Force base in the city of Fuchū, located in the western Tokyo Metropolis.

According to an official spokesman of the Japanese Ministry of Defence, the main task of the newly established military space unit will be to counter possible attacks of Japanese military targets by foreign satellites and to prevent collisions of Japanese spacecrafts with space debris.

The Japanese Ministry of Defence considers strengthening its space assets as one of its most important tasks in the field of defence, particularly given recent efforts by the United States, China, and Russia for more active use of outer space for military intelligence.

Land Forces

The new State Defence Program includes the establishment of a special electronic warfare unit for the land forces – using electromagnetic waves for army purposes. A new unit, consisting of 80 people, will be deployed at the end of 2020 at the Japanese Kangun base in Kumamoto. It will primarily focus on the monitoring of the activities of Chinese troops.

Budget Approval

Japan’s Defence Budget 2020 is expected to be approved by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinz¯o Abe after consultations with the Ministry of Finance.

Eugene Gerden is a FrontLine correspondent who specializes in military and defence.

© 2019 FrontLine Defence (Vol 16, No 3)