The Abe cabinet announced its new ten-year defense plan this week, promising to spend 27 trillion yen ($240 billion) over the next five years on Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Eye-catching in the announcement was the decision to refit the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s biggest destroyer, the JS Izumo, to allow fighter jets to operate off its flight deck, an unabashed upgrade to aircraft carrier. But the import of the 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) is far greater: Japan is deeply worried about the military balance in Northeast Asia and is doing it all it can to make sure its military is ready for conflict and to ensure the United States remains committed to its security.

The 2018 NDPG looks ahead over the next ten years to anticipate Japan’s defense needs, noting the “accelerating pace and deepening complexity of the global power balance” as the most unnerving factor in Tokyo’s defense planning. Regional threat perception matters most, however, and Japan’s highest concern continues to be the expanding military powers of China and North Korea. China’s expanding maritime and air capabilities offer significant challenges to Japan’s SDF, and the NDPG points out that the “massive and rapid reclamation in the South China Sea” creates “a military flash point” where China continues its intensive air and maritime operations.

The NDPG also notes North Korea’s vastly improved ballistic missile capabilities that, coupled with its WMD stocks, offer the most immediate concern for Japanese planners. In Tokyo, the import of recent North Korean launches is that Pyongyang can now launch missiles simultaneously and with the capacity for surprise. Perhaps most striking, however, was its conclusion about recent negotiations with Kim Jong-un: “there has been no fundamental change in North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.” Moreover, cyber and information warfare capabilities in Pyongyang seem to be increasing, offering a threat to Japan, to others in Asia, and to the world.

Also striking was the inclusion of Russia in Japan’s defense concerns. Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to negotiate a peace treaty with President Vladimir Putin, the NDPG takes note of Russia’s efforts to modernize its military forces and particularly its strategic nuclear forces. The NDPG notes Russian military activities are not only growing in the Arctic, Europe, the vicinity of the United States, and the Middle East, but are also increasing in the Far Eastern region, including around the Northern Territories.

The 2019–2023 procurement plan that accompanies this new defense plan includes an array of new capabilities for the Self-Defense Forces, with a 3 trillion yen ($26.9 billion) boost from MOD’s last five year plan. Yet this still may not be enough to keep pace with the rapidly growing capabilities of Japan’s neighbors. For example, China reports spending around $151 billion in 2017 on its defenses, although the actual figure may be higher. In contrast, Japan is planning to spend on average just under $50 billion annually over the next five years.

Nonetheless, the new capabilities that Japan’s defense planners seek to integrate into their military are significant. The NDPG highlights the need for “multi domain” operations, and while Japan already has one of the world’s most competent maritime forces, it must now enhance its ability to operate in cyber and space. A new space operations command will be established, with up to 500 personnel. And all three services will be required to have a dedicated cyber unit as well as capabilities to cope with the use of electromagnetic pulses designed to disable Japanese communications and information systems.

Japan’s vulnerability to missile attack is real. While North Korea’s arsenal is singled out in the NDPG, all of Japan’s neighbors have ballistic missiles and (almost) all are nuclear powers. Despite enhancing its ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities, Tokyo will have little serious ability to strike back if it is attacked. North Korea, Chinese, and Russian forces continue to demonstrate their ability to challenge Japan’s airspace and to launch significant offensive operations against Japan. For years now, Japan’s air and maritime forces have remained on constant alert, aiming for a 24/7 operational readiness.

The focus on Japan’s ability to counter an attack is perhaps the most striking feature of the 2018 defense plan. Both the NDPG and the five-year procurement plan highlight the importance of readiness and resilience. But this NDPG focuses attention on Japan’s overall air defenses, introducing both enhanced missile detection and destruction capabilities as well as accelerating the modernization of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) fighters. 

The land-based AEGIS Ashore system will be introduced over the coming years, to be fully operational by 2023, giving Japan far greater ability to detect, target, and if necessary, destroy incoming ballistic missiles. Integrating land, sea, and air based BMD systems will be a priority once this new system is deployed. The Ground Self-Defense Force will manage this new land based capability, and the command and control system for Japan’s integrated ballistic missile defense system—including the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (MSDF) ship-based AEGIS and the Air Self-Defense Force’s PAC-3s—will need to be updated. 

Japan’s air force gets a significant upgrade over the next decade. The introduction of the F-35A fighter has been in the works for several years now, with 42 new fighters (or two squadrons) planned for deployment by 2021. Japanese pilots are already training on the F-35A, and by 2021, these new fighters will replace the aged F-4 Phantoms. But the scope of the modernization plan announced this week is much greater. Japan will now purchase a total of 147 F-35s, adding 105 more to those already on their way to Japan. Of these, 42 will be the F-35B, capable of short takeoff and vertical landing, and the additional F-35As will replace the early model F-15s in use now. The pace of deployment will depend largely on how fast they can be built. 

The addition of short takeoff and vertical landing F-35Bs to the arsenal offers the ASDF more options as it considers its southwestern defenses. This fighter can operate off of short runways, including a refitted flight deck on the MSDF’s largest helicopter destroyers. The JS Izumo is smaller than the newest U.S. carriers (27,000 v. 100,000 ton displacement); and perhaps more to the point, smaller than estimates of China’s newer carriers (66-70,000 ton displacement) destined for the East and South China Seas. According to the Ministry of Defense, the new F-35Bs will not be permanently stationed aboard MSDF ships, but Tokyo clearly is increasing its options and thinking aloud about how a conflict in its southwestern region might evolve.

Important to that scenario are standoff missiles that will give the SDF greater capacity to confront any aggression offshore. These missiles (the JSM, the JASSM, and the LRASM) are all air-based and long-range, with ranges estimated from 500 to 1,000 kilometers. Moreover, new anti-ship missiles and hypersonic guided missiles are under development for the SDF’s island defense mission.

Japan’s SDF will now have more muscular weapons and the capacity to detect foreign military activities—and potentially respond to threat—far more quickly. New capabilities in cyber and space will be built, and new command and control structures will be refined to accommodate these emerging capabilities. Recognizing the need to take action in case of new threats from cyber, space, and via electromagnetic pulse, the SDF will be driven to develop a more integrated defense posture. Beyond that, the three services will need to coordinate their new capabilities in combined operations with the United States.

Clearly, President Donald J. Trump’s public request of Prime Minister Abe last year to buy more advanced U.S. weapons systems had some influence on Japanese decision-making. But there are some important trade-offs being made as a result. The F-35s will be purchased off the shelf from the United States, and the co-production arrangement that allowed Japanese manufacturers to produce in Japan will end. 

But there is another fighter still under consideration in Tokyo, a new fighter to replace the multi-role F-2. Once again, Japanese planners are considering their industrial capacity and acquiring the technology and experience in building a fighter remains a longer-term aim. For now, the Japanese government has clarified its intention to organize a Japanese-led consortium to build the F-2 replacement.

Tokyo’s defensive military doctrine is under increasing pressure from the far more sophisticated and assertive military forces that operate in and around Japanese territory. This is amply evident in the 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines. Yet, as I argue in my forthcoming book, Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, the growing military pressure from Japan’s neighbors is only one part of the equation. Changing U.S. views on its alliance commitments, as well as a growing confidence within Japan over its use of military power, all factor into Tokyo’s strategic thinking.

Header Image: A U.S. Air Force F-16 (left) escorts a Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-35A (right) over the Pacific Ocean on November 6, 2017. U.S. Air Force

The piece was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations and it is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Sheila A. Smith, an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy, is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She is the author of Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (Columbia University Press, 2015), which was released in Japanese as 日中 親愛なる宿敵: 変容する日本政治と対中政 (Tokyo University Press, 2018), and Japan’s New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance (Council on Foreign Relations, June 2014). Her current research focuses on how geostrategic change in Asia is shaping Japan’s strategic choices. In the fall of 2014, Smith began a project on Nationalism, Japan, and a Changing Asia.