Japan has embarked on a massive military spending spree, marking one of its most significant defense policy transformations since World War II. It won’t come easy, however, as domestic and international challenges rise to the shift away from pacifism amid growing tensions between the US and China over Taiwan.
Late last month, Naval News reported that Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) proposed a defense budget of US$52.9 billion for the fiscal year 2024. The outlays will include funds for building two Aegis System-Equipped Vessels (ASEV) and a pair of new multi-mission frigates (FFM).
The proposed ASEVs are designed to be 190 meters in length, 25 meters in width and will have a standard displacement of 12,000 tons—dimensions that make them 1.7 times larger than the US Navy’s Flight III Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers.
The first ASEV is slated for delivery to the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) in fiscal 2027, followed by the second in the subsequent fiscal year. Each will cost about $2.7 billion to build.
Naval News also notes that the JMSDF aims to add 12 new FFMs to its fleet for US$1.2 billion to replace its existing Mogami-class FFMs. The new FFMs will have various enhanced features including extended missile range, superior anti-submarine capabilities and bolstered maritime operational proficiency.
Japan also plans to modify its two Izumo-class helicopter carriers to accommodate Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter aircraft, with the JMSDF earmarking 42.3 billion yen ($290 million) for the overhauls.
Japan’s MOD is also reportedly keen on advancing its electronic warfare capabilities. To this end, it plans to create a specialized electronic warfare aircraft to adapt to a more intricate electronic warfare milieu and to fortify its aptitudes in the electromagnetic spectrum, which is crucial for cross-domain operations.
A $512 million Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI) is also in the development pipeline in collaboration with the US, with Japan primarily overseeing the development of the kill vehicle’s rocket motor and propulsion systems.
Lastly, according to Naval News, the Japanese MOD plans to develop a new class of surface-to-ship and surface-to-surface precision-guided missiles with greater ranges than existing stocks by fiscal year 2030.
Japan’s MOD is also seeking 82.5 billion yen ($566 million) to construct a 14,500-ton replenishment vessel and research into combat support multipurpose Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) and developing uncrewed amphibious vehicles.
In a February 2023 article for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Jingdong Yuan notes that the Fumio Kishida’s government approved three policy documents in 2022 (National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and the Defense Buildup Program) to set the military expansion in motion over at least the next five years.
Jingdong notes the outlays will enable Japan to participate more actively in collective self-defense with the US and boost its ability to project force beyond its borders given longstanding tensions with China and North Korea and territorial disputes with Russia viewed in the context of the ongoing Ukraine War.
The writer says the new strategic documents mark a significant step toward normalizing Japan’s new defense posture, a multipronged national security strategy anchored in its alliance with the US and prioritizing forming economic ties and security partnerships with “like-minded” countries.
Jingdong argues that Japan’s national security strategy has shifted from relying on US protection to a more integrated approach marked by greater security consultation, a new economic security strategy and strengthened military ties with nations beyond the Indo-Pacific region such as Australia, India, Italy and the UK.
However, Jingdong points out several challenges to implementing this new policy. First, he says financing Japan’s new spending plans will require sustained domestic support, particularly if tax rises and general spending cuts are required.
Second, Jingdong says that Japan’s most significant military buildup since World War II may be seen as a threat by its neighbors, including not least China, North Korea and Russia. Third, he mentions potential entanglement in conflict zones beyond Japanese territory, especially in the Taiwan Strait.
Jennifer Kavanagh notes in a February 2023 article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that Japan will likely still depend on the US in many ways and be limited in its ability to contribute significantly to any regional crises until well into the 2030s.
Kavanagh says that the US Department of Defense (DOD) and State Department expect that China may consider aggressive military action against Taiwan or elsewhere in the theater on an accelerated timeline, meaning Japan’s transition may be too slow to affect US planning for regional deterrence and contingency operations or to ease the US defense burden.
For example, while Japan is now building up a formidable arsenal of long-range missiles as a potential counterstrike capability against China and North Korea, Japan has relatively insufficient intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities for targeting, which means it will most likely rely on the US to fill in the capability gap.
Kavanagh says Japan will need to invest heavily in modernized and advanced air defense systems, weapons that enhance its long-range strike capability and overall infrastructure such as airfields, ports and highways to address those shortfalls.
The author argues resources will also be needed to support enhanced capabilities and training for Japanese forces based in Southwest Japan, strategically situated near Taiwan, and to establish new command structures including a permanent joint headquarters.
Kavanagh and others argue that Japan faces significant time constraints in implementing its big-budget new defense posture, which will arguably only yield full benefits well after 2027. It may all come too late for Japan to lessen its defense burden on the US in a Taiwan contingency.
Derek Grossman notes in a 2021 RAND article that China might make a move against the self-governing island in 2027 or earlier, with the possible victory of Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te in the upcoming 2024 Taiwan presidential elections serving as a possible impetus for Chinese military action.
China has labeled Lai as a “separatist” and “independence supporter,” raising the odds that China will pursue a military course of action for “reunification” if he is elected. Lai has recently underlined Taiwan’s status as an independent nation, stating last month that the island’s sovereignty is a “fact.”