Japan is reshaping its military forces as it attempts to tackle a perceived
nuclear threat from North Korea and strengthen its role in multinational peacekeeping
operations, Japanese officials told National Defense.
Japan’s Parliament recently passed a series of war contingency bills
that give the government significantly increased powers in case of military
emergencies. After two years of debate, the contingency laws were sparked by
Japan’s concern over a ballistic missile attack by North Korea.
Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom are “a great trigger”
to change public opinion about the role of the Japanese defense forces, said
Col. Takeo Yamaoka, Japan’s military attaché and the representative
of the Ground Self Defense Force in Washington, D.C. He said that public perception
has been changing gradually since the first Gulf War, when Japan paid a lot
of money to conduct “checkbook diplomacy.” The public noticed that,
After the Gulf War, Japan stood up peacekeeping forces that have contributed
to missions around the world. After 9/11, Japan passed special laws to support
OEF and later OIF. The public supported those laws, Yamaoka said. “Most
of the Japanese people understand that we have to change the constitution.”
After World War II, a new constitution, written by occupying U.S. forces, permitted
a nominal self-defense force that eventually branched out into the Ground-,
Maritime- and Air Self Defense Forces.
Transforming into a more reactive force will take lots of time and money, said
The JSDF has a budget of almost $32 billion. Even though Japan is known to
have one of the most richly financed and technologically advanced militaries—falling
third behind the United States and United Kingdom—the current economic
depression has forced the government to reassess priorities, Yamaoka said.
Ballistic missile defense tops the list, but acquiring systems such as the
Patriot PAC-3 for the Air Self Defense Forces and the SM-3 Standard missile
for Japan’s current Aegis ships will cost several billion dollars, said
Japan has a total of six Aegis ships, but it is uncertain how many would be
equipped with the SM-3. Nevertheless, Japan has decided to invest and move SM-3
research into the development stage, cooperating with the U.S. Missile Defense
Agency, said Yamaoka.
He said that Japan either will buy the two systems from the United States or
license the technology. While the brunt of the missile defense systems are for
the Navy and the Air Force, Yamaoka said the Ground Forces also need a capability
for middle-range missile defense.
“It is going to be a big debate how to share the cost for missile defense,”
One way to free up funds would be to downsize the ground force, said Francis
Cevasco, an international analyst with Hicks and Associates, a consulting firm
in Fairfax, Va. “It will be years until Japan will have missile defense,
just as our Navy is far from fielding such capability.”
Japan is planning to buy more Aegis ships in the future, because, according
to Cevasco, most of their missile defense would focus on naval systems.
“There is a plan to do a major upgrade of their navy that is going to
take a lot of money, and it sounds to me that they are quite serious about that,”
he said. Cevasco said he believes that Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of
Aegis, “knows that it has to provide [Japan] the opportunity to operate
and maintain these systems on their own, [which means] some work for Japanese
The changes in Japan’s defense posture and the insistence on acquiring
ballistic missile defense are based on the fact that Japan perceives its national
interest radically different than it did three years ago, said Cevasco. “Today,
they are subject to attack, at least theoretically by a ballistic missile from
North Korea. ... Before, all these things were hypothetical, but now they are
real or near real. Now, the government is obliged to do something.”
In 1998, North Korea fired a Taepo Dong ballistic missile over Japanese airspace.
Japan’s Defense Agency says North Korea allegedly is working on a longer-range
missile that could fly 1,500 km, as well as a Taepo Dong-2, a two-stage missile
with a range of 3,500 to 6,000 km.
Until recently, Japan was defended under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, said Cevasco,
Now, the U.S. umbrella does not “really work with North Korea, which may
operate a nuclear missile over Japan,” he said. Hypothetically, he said,
North Korean special forces could sneak up on the Japanese shorelines and create
havoc. “Our nuclear umbrella does not help with that,” Cevasco said.
Yamaoka noted that North Korea needs the kind of high-tech materials that Japan
produces to improve not only their nuclear facilities, but also their missile
“We can stop the direct export [of such technology], but the problem
is using other countries’ companies as a dummy, and these technologies
would get to them,” Yamaoka said.
He said that China has been pretty cooperative about trying to stop proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction, but in its turn, China does not always have
full control of its commercial companies. However, he added, “I believe
that China will strengthen the restriction.”
But even though China has been helpful about stopping the proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction, its fragile relationship with Taiwan is a direct
threat to Japan.
“Japan depends on sea-line trade and oil coming from the Middle East
through the Taiwan Straight, so our concern is the relationship between China
and Taiwan,” Yamaoka said. “If something happens between China and
Taiwan we will have to come up with something that will protect our sea-line
The Chinese have voiced their dislike of Japan’s acquiring a missile
defense capability, because China could no longer threaten Japan with nuclear
missiles, said Cevasco. However, he pointed out that Japan’s relationship
with China is nothing like the one with North Korea.
Besides the much-publicized need to develop missile defense, the Japanese forces
seek improved information technology.
According to Japan’s defense attaché in Washington, D.C., Maj.
Gen. Yoshiyuki Watanabe, one of the priorities are to deploy satellites for
surveillance and imaging.
Countering special forces attacks is also fairly high on the priority list,
according to Yamaoka. The Ground SDF has been making efforts to improve the
content of exercises to prepare for such attacks, said Yamaoka.
An effort to develop a special operations unit is underway for the Western
region of Japan, said Yamaoka. The Japanese forces have also trained for urban
combat. Soldiers have received mobile radars and surveillance equipment.
Starting in 2006, Japan will be acquiring a new tank, developed domestically.
It will be much lighter than the American M1A1 tank at a cost of $10 million,
Yamaoka did not disclose the number of tanks Japan will purchase, but said
that currently the GSDF has 900 tanks. But he said it’s unlikely that
every old tank will be replaced.
The GSDF is also planning to replace its aging Cobra gunship fleet with Apache
Longbow helicopters, said Yamaoka. He said that Japan will eventually purchase
around 50, probably 10 every five years.
The CH-47 Chinook fleet is undergoing upgrades to the radar and the fuel system,
The ground forces also will acquire Type-99 self-propelled 155 mm howitzers
and multiple launch rocket systems.
The Maritime SDF started procuring in 2002 the SH-60K patrol helicopter. These
aircraft also serve in anti-submarine warfare roles.
The SH-60K is a modified SH-60J. The new version can accommodate anti-submarine
bombs, anti-ship missiles and machine guns, in addition to torpedos. Full-fledged
unit deployment will start in 2005.
According to Defense Agency documents, the ASDF is looking to develop a tactical
cargo aircraft, as a follow-on to the C-1.
Before Japan takes any more concrete steps to transform its self-defense forces,
the country’s presence in peacekeeping operations will increase significantly
in the near future, said Cevasco.
“They will become more visible and be engaged in larger numbers than
they have done in the past,” he said.
Japan has sent one destroyer, one Aegis cruiser and a refueling ship to the
Indian Ocean to support Operation Enduring Freedom and later Operation Iraqi
Freedom. The Japanese maritime forces worked in coordination with the U.S. Navy.
In mid-June the government of Japan proposed contributing humanitarian assistance
to Iraqi people, Iraqi reconstruction and ensuring security in Iraq. Japan would
provide medical services, transportation, storage of goods, communications,
construction supply and decontamination.
The legislation submitted to Japan’s Diet stipulates that these operations
would not involve the use of force. At press time, the bill was still awaiting
Before this bill was submitted, Japan was not allowed to have any kind of military
presence in Iraq.
“Japan has to send troops immediately,” said Watanabe, “because
there is a difference between sending civilian agencies or the military. The
military is the strongest representation of a nation’s intentions.”
The restrictions that apply to the Self Defense Force do not fit the current
situation, he said. The Middle East area is crucial to Japan, because of its
dependency on oil. Therefore, the stability of Iraq is of utmost importance.
Japan likely will continue to support U.S. operations. The security of the
country has so far depended and will depend on the bilateral relationship with
the United States, said Yamaoka.
“There are differences between the cultures in Asia, and we have never
been able to have a NATO-type of alliance,” said Yamaoka. “I do
not want to weaken the U.S.-Japan alliance, because it has been the anchor of
He said that in areas such as international crimes, pirating and disaster relief,
Japan will work together with other nations from the region.
But a multilateral security alliance has to rely on commonly shared values,
he added. Asian countries perceive themselves “as having different interests
from their near and far neighbors,” said Cevasco.
“Nothing that happens over there would be like the interlocking in NATO.
It’s [always going to be based on] regional behavioral patterns.”