A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor during a successful intercept test, in this undated photo provided by the US Department of Defense. Handout via Reuters

As US President Donald Trump departed from Northeast Asia last month, he appeared to set the stage for a significant uptick in sales of US military hardware. Both in Tokyo and Seoul, Trump’s emphasis on bilateral trade agreements has apparently spawned one solution to the current trade imbalance, which is to sell lots of advanced weapons to both countries.

This would achieve both long-term security objectives for the US and the region, as well as ensure a steady income for US defense contractors – but Japan and South Korea may not embrace this plan. Any expanded role for the military in each nation is a very sensitive undertaking, and, above all else, setting off alarm bells in Beijing is to be avoided. At the same time, both nations are pursuing 21st Century weaponry with its emphasis on robotic autonomous platforms, advanced networking and battlespace saturation via cyber warfare, and both nations may not share President Trump’s vision entirely.

According to Professor Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies program at the Tokyo-based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, readers need to be aware of a series of decisions made long before Air Force One brought Trump to Asia.

“Japan had decided to procure an advanced version of the SM-3 Block IIA sea-based ballistic missile system, F-35 fighter aircraft, V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, and AAV-7 amphibious vehicles before the Trump visit,” Prof Michishita said via email. “What’s new are the Aegis Ashore missile defense system and anti-ship/ anti-ground cruise missiles, which had also been discussed before the Trump visit. Japan decided to buy what it was going to buy anyway, timing it to Mr Trump’s visit in order to maximize the political impact of the decision.”

The question of what funding is available, among other things in Seoul and Tokyo, is also very relevant. Dr Swee Lean Collin Koh, a research fellow with the Maritime Security Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore says “the strategic motivations of Japan and ROK [Republic of Korea/South Korea] to beef up their defenses are there, and both countries have evinced interest and demonstrated some will to proceed with those plans.”

“We see that evident in Seoul’s potential quest for nuclear-powered attack submarines and advanced C4ISR capabilities from the US. And most recently, besides seeking US Aegis Ashore and possibly even THAAD, Tokyo is eyeing long-range offensive strike missiles, one of which being the US-made JASSM-ER,” said Koh. “These are highly sophisticated, and by that virtue, extremely expensive weapons. Not just the systems themselves, but also the costs associated with long-term supporting infrastructure, training and associated elements of the sales package.”

Because of the significant sums of money involved, and the uncertainty surrounding the funding, prioritization is required.

Huge costs and desire for defense self-sufficiency

“Their militaries have a whole range of areas to modernize and enhance on,” said Koh. “For ROK, there’s also the added domestic pressure to focus on building defense self-sufficiency by grooming its indigenous defense industrial base, which means buying local than to American, unless absolutely necessary.”

Meanwhile, Japan is wrestling with the fact that each Aegis Ashore set would cost up to US$1 billion, something Tokyo can barely afford.

“Immediate acquisitions may not be feasible [so we may see] phased acquisition plans stretching over a longer period of time, spreading out the expenses across fiscal years. This would apply similarly to ROK as well,” said Koh.

Another issue involves the apparent reluctance of the US to share its advanced AN/SPY-6 radar system with its allies in Asia.

“The SPY-6 case reminds me of the reticence against selling the F-22 Raptor. Japan initially was interested, but could only settle on the F-35 Lightning II,” said Koh. “However, thus far, while SPY-6 has been withheld, Japan and ROK have been offered Ballistic Missile Defense upgrades to their existing Aegis combat systems, with the current priority plausibly to focus on building BMD interoperability than to achieve systems commonality. It is only a matter of time before SPY-6 would be released to these allied navies, [and it would be] perhaps easier to do so than to release the F-22 for sale.”

A US Air Force B-1B Lancer takes-off to fly a bilateral mission with Japanese and South Korea Air Force jets in the vicinity of the Sea of Japan. Photo: US Air Force via Reuters

When it comes to other US naval weapons purchases, both countries might end up seeking a limited number of niche capabilities for a few reasons.

“Japan and ROK use American systems and sub-systems (mounted on warships which each country now produces). Both have steadily made progress in indigenization, such as sensors (radars, sonars, etc – especially in the case of Japan) and kinetic weapons, especially anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes,” said Koh. “This leaves open prospects for future naval purchases/tech cooperation in areas such as warship propulsion, anti-air warfare and shipboard missile defense systems, as well as in areas of acoustic/infra-red/radar signature reduction (i.e. stealth) capabilities. These are areas that continue to be ripe for further collaboration, and potentially would feature in future naval tech collaboration between these allies.”

As for Japan’s recently announced plan to jointly develop a missile with the UK, this would present Japan “with more options to pursue military technology links and cast this net wider, but generally it would continue to view the US as a primary partner in this realm,” said Koh. At the same time, Seoul values its relationship with Germany, which has been a major weapons supplier for some time.

“Indeed, key purchases such as the Taurus air-launched standoff weapon and Type-214 diesel-electric subs count as crown jewels of German-ROK defense relations. ROK is unlikely to only turn to the US for future defense purchases. Perhaps American-ROK links would remain extremely important in niche areas such as missile defense, but for other aspects of conventional warfare capabilities, there remain substantial areas of cooperation for the two countries, such as in naval technology (sonars, torpedoes, for example) and possibly follow-on cooperation in air-launched standoff weapons after Taurus KEPD,” said Koh.

“Germany continues to lead in several major mil-tech areas and it would be foolhardy for the ROK to abandon or overlook its established links with Germany in favor of just with the US,” Koh added.

At the same time, Japan and South Korea represent two completely different mindsets. Pacifism remains deeply embedded in the core of Japanese politics, for example.

“Korea has made significantly increased defense investment plans. Less so in Japan, where pacifism is not just a vague idea but an aspirational goal for many. (There have been many) calls for Japan to double its defense spending, and there are good reasons for this call, but it simply is unlikely to happen unless the Japanese people come to believe that such a radical step is required. That hasn’t happened yet,” said Garren Mulloy, Associate Professor of International Relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama, Japan.

“Japan has already bought a great deal of defensive equipment from the US. The whole Aegis system was a massive investment for Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, augmented by SM-3, and PAC-3 (missiles). Aegis Ashore would be the obvious development of this, but I have long warned that the scale of BMD investment required to attain the degree of missile defense that Japan desires is essentially a bottomless pit of defense investment that Japan is unwilling or unable to double defense budgets for,” said Mulloy via email.

Japan Self-Defense Forces soldiers raise the PAC-3 missile unit to a firing position. Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato

Japanese finances ‘not in great shape’

Japanese public finances are not in good shape, and depend upon “running massive public spending deficits propped-up by yen-denominated soft loans,” said Mulloy. “This is clearly unsustainable, and requires a massive economic growth spurt.”

As far as the decision to buy F-35’s in 2011, “despite its obvious qualities, the selection process failed to address basic Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) operational and service requirements (which included among other things) twin-engines for long-range operations over vast maritime domains. They don’t seem to have got any of that,” said Mulloy. So the F-35’s cannot be modified and developed within Japan for evolving ASDF requirements yielding a highly capable air-combat system.

Meanwhile, the latest Japanese “incredibly advanced AAM-4 missile”, which Mulloy describes, is about a meter too long for the F-35 internal weapons bay, and “there is a research project with BAe and other European partners to marry the best features of the Meteor BVM AAM with the AAM-4. Not exactly fitting into the overall ‘Buy USA’ picture,” Mulloy said.

For this and a number of other reasons, Japan is focusing a lot of its attention on building ties to Europe.

“(In the case of the SM-3 missile for example), Japan will develop a missile very similar to those recently developed by Korea, the UK, France, and overlapping with US capabilities. This is insurance for Japan, as the US is possibly less dependable, and also US companies less reliable partners,” said Mulloy, pointing to a decision by US companies to withdraw support from older versions of weapons systems. “Many allied countries were left with good missiles that would not be supported. The UK has now been left with a capability gap. Japan has not.”

Japan’s Advanced Defense Technology Center, part of the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA) underscores Japan’s determination to explore a wide array of solutions to its defense challenges in the future. Japan wants to proceed with the current US umbrella in place, but also wants to lay the groundwork for a more flexible defense infrastructure with more Japanese-built components.

“ATLA and its predecessor TARDI support Japanese manufacturers, but it isn’t as simple as drip-feeding corporations. It is about developing and retaining domestic capabilities. Japanese radar and seeker-heads are now among the best in the world, and they are seeking partners, and finding lots of interest in Europe. The US is looking for importers. That is a significant difference,” Mulloy said.

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