SPECIAL REPORT: U.S., Japan Set to Enhance Cooperation on Military R&D

By Jon Harper
Concept art for the Japanese F-X fighter

Japan MoD concept

This is part 2 of a 4-part special report on the Quad.

The United States and Japan are already close military allies, but those ties could become even tighter in coming years as the two nations explore more opportunities to cooperate on defense research and development.

Both countries, along with Australia and India, are part of the group of nations known as the Quad, which are moving to enhance technology collaboration.

The United States has long been the top international weapons seller to Japan, providing a whopping 97 percent of the island nation’s defense equipment imports from 2016-2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s latest annual report on trends in international arms transfers.

“Japan’s arms imports will probably continue to rise based on new orders for arms from the USA,” the report said.
Additionally, U.S. and Japanese military forces hold frequent joint exercises, and Uncle Sam has more than 50,000 troops stationed in the land of the rising sun.

“In Tokyo’s case, the U.S.-Japan bilateral defense relationship is the most important one for Japanese defense,” said Jacob Stokes, a fellow with the Indo-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security think tank.

Concerns about China’s military modernization and regional assertiveness are the primary factor driving Japanese threat perceptions, force planning and defense investments, he noted.

Major U.S.-made systems that Tokyo has been buying or plans to purchase include the A and B variants of the F-35 joint strike fighter, V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, Aegis naval weapon systems, PAC-3 missile segment enhancement interceptors, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye command-and-control aircraft, RQ-4 Global Hawk intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drones, SM-6 missiles, and other capabilities.

“We purchased quite a bit of U.S.-made equipment,” said Kyosuke Matsumoto, director of the equipment policy division at the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency, said through an interpreter during a recent webinar hosted by the International Security Industry Council of Japan. “We have relied on the U.S. in a lot of areas, especially for many different types of very advanced technology.”

However, democratic countries such as Japan and the United States are on the verge of losing their technological edge over China, which is investing heavily in military research and development, ATLA Commissioner Suzuki Atsuo has warned.

“In order to avoid losing our technological superiority completely, we need to … invest more in R&D,” he said during a speech in September at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “Cooperation with allies and partners is indispensable in making use of our limited resources,” he added.

For fiscal year 2022, the Japanese Defense Ministry is requesting approximately $2.8 billion for research and development, a 50 percent increase from the previous year. Much of that will be used to invest in “game-changing” technology such as space, cyber, electronic warfare, artificial intelligence and directed energy weapons, he said.

Additionally, ATLA is recruiting highly skilled engineers from outside the agency to help further the technology.
Japan and the United States have already pursued co-development and co-production of military capabilities, such as the SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptor, which was built by Raytheon and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. But Tokyo wants to build on that success and boost collaboration on new projects with the Pentagon’s research and engineering directorate.

“When one thinks about future equipment and technology … we need to continue looking for more areas for cooperation,” Matsumoto said.

“We have to strengthen our ties with R&E, especially for cutting edge technology.”

The Pentagon, which also views China’s military as its so-called “pacing threat,” has signaled its interest in doing more with Japan.

Heidi Shyu, the new U.S. undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said one of her key goals is to establish much stronger international partnerships.

“That’s exactly the path we’re going on — to do collaborative research, to do some collaborative joint development and push the technology forward quickly,” she said in October during a press briefing at the Association of the United States Army’s annual convention in Washington, D.C.

“If your allies have the same capability, the same product, this is where you eliminate interoperability problems,” she added. “We don’t fight in a war by ourselves. We always fight with our allies and partners. So, it makes sense for us to collaborate right from the beginning in the development” of new systems.

Shyu, who took office in July, told National Defense that she has already held consultations with her Japanese counterparts.

“Their interest areas are pretty wide,” she said, citing hypersonics and quantum technology as just a couple of examples.

Follow-up meetings are planned to flesh out the way forward on science-and-technology efforts and co-development opportunities.

Meanwhile, U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has been tapped to provide technical support for Japan’s development of a next-generation fighter jet known as F-X, which is slated to replace the F-2 in the 2030s. Northrop Grumman will also be involved.

Late last year, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was selected to lead the industry effort, and the Ministry of Defense subsequently released its plans for international collaboration.

“In developing the F-X, the MoD has decided to advance this program with necessary support and cooperation from the U.S.,” the ministry said in a policy paper published in March.

The MoD added that it will continue discussions with the United States as well as the United Kingdom about possible collaboration on the F-X at the system level, such as engines and avionics aimed at reducing cost and technical risk.

Selecting Lockheed Martin as a partner for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries should facilitate interoperability between the F-X and the F-35, said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Lockheed is the prime contractor for the F-35.

“The choice will bind more closely the security and defense-industrial ties between Japan and the U.S., as each seeks to respond to China’s growing power,” he wrote in a blog post titled, “Japan’s Fighter Choice: A Repeat Order with Added Sides?”

“However, if Japan also continues to pursue weapon- and system-technology developments applicable to the F-X over the next few years, the possibility could remain of Tokyo continuing to strengthen a second tier of defense-industrial relationships with other partners,” he added.

Nicholas Szechenyi, deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Washington and Tokyo face similar challenges when it comes to the desire to acquire new military technologies faster while weighing where to invest limited resources.

“We’re in a very interesting period in the U.S.-Japan alliance where both countries are recognizing the need to develop capabilities in response to the increased threat posed by China,” he said.

“There’s a good structure in place between the two governments to address a range of defense cooperation issues, and the plan is to organize another so called two-plus-two meeting … to identify next steps for alliance cooperation,” he said, referring to confabs between the U.S. secretaries of state and defense and their respective Japanese counterparts.

Missile defense is one area where the two countries have a history of cooperation, he noted, citing the SM-3 Block IIA as an example. But there isn’t a clear consensus in Japan on how to go about investing in those types of capabilities in the future, he added.

Enhancing situational awareness is another area that could be ripe for collaboration, he said.

“The key to maintaining vitality in the alliance and ensuring deterrence in the future is going to be creating a common operational picture of what’s going on in the region,” he said. “That’s going to require technological cooperation, but also information sharing and intelligence sharing. And that’s a key priority for the alliance.”

That suggests there is “great potential” to further enhance cooperation in these areas in the years ahead, he added.

Meanwhile, policy changes in Tokyo in recent years have opened the door to Japan acquiring more offensive systems and “stand-off” weapons. The Pentagon and U.S. defense industry have been working on a variety of new air-, land- and sea-based long-range weapons.

There is “a robust discussion now among political leaders about Japan acquiring so-called strike capability or missiles, … and that gets to whether Japan would develop that capability separately or do it under the umbrella of the U.S.-Japan alliance to support more interoperability and joint operational planning,” Szechenyi said.

When it comes to military technology, Japanese leaders are trying to find the right balance between developing indigenous capabilities and receiving support from the United States, he noted.

“There’s a lot of potential for Japan to enhance its capabilities, but I think the debate about what the priorities should be is just getting started,” he said. “I think ultimately it’s going to be a combination of reliance on existing U.S. technology and trying to acquire that quickly, while also identifying areas where Japan can develop and sustain its own defense industry. But this debate is very fluid, so it’s going to evolve over time.”

Stokes, of the Center for a New American Security, said the biggest obstacles to deepening U.S.-Japan defense cooperation are primarily political and financial, not policy or regulatory barriers.

The United States has generally been willing to sell Japan advanced defense capabilities, he noted.

“The main political barriers are Japan’s ongoing reinterpretation of its military’s constitutional self-defense role, and what those views mean for specific missions and capabilities,” he said. “The financial barriers derive from Japan’s relatively modest defense spending, but … the trend could be changing” with Tokyo’s military budgets on the rise.

Japan currently spends about $50 billion annually on defense. In comparison, the Pentagon received more than $700 billion in 2021.

In addition to working with the United States, Japan has been strengthening its relationships with Australia and India — the other two members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad.

Japan has had limited joint research efforts with Australia and India and discussed “candidate technologies” for potential transfer, Matsumoto noted.

Critical and emerging technologies are a major pillar of Quad cooperation, although there is a greater focus on civilian technologies than explicitly military ones, Stokes noted, adding that the Quad is not a military alliance.

Szechenyi said the Quad could evolve toward defense industrial cooperation, but if that were to occur it would likely be a longer-term development.

Meanwhile, Washington has bilateral defense treaties with both Tokyo and Canberra, and trilateral military networking between the three has been “very robust,” he said.

“There’s a longstanding trilateral strategic dialogue, which identifies not only avenues for defense cooperation, but other ways to demonstrate resolve in the [Asia-Pacific] region,” Stokes said. “That has great potential.”


Japan Well Positioned to Leverage Dual-Use Tech

Japan is moving to modernize its armed forces and boost exports of defense items. The nation’s prowess when it comes to commercial and dual-use technologies could aid both efforts, officials and analysts say.
Japan is already a formidable military power.

“Broadly speaking, Japan’s military — the Self-Defense Forces, or SDF — is exceedingly capable relative to most other nations in the Indo-Pacific,” aside from the United States and China, said Jacob Stokes, a fellow with the Indo-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security think tank.

“Japan, as a country with an expansive island geography, has particularly strong capabilities in anti-submarine warfare, maritime domain awareness and maritime security generally,” he added.

The SDF frequently takes part in multilateral exercises with the U.S. military and other like-minded partners, which helps them sustain high levels of interoperability, he noted.

Casting a wary eye toward China and the People’s Liberation Army’s ongoing modernization efforts, the Japanese Ministry of Defense wants to strengthen its forces, but it faces resource constraints.

“We should proactively adopt civilian technologies that are already advanced,” said Suzuki Atsuo, commissioner of Japan’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency.

ATLA plan to recruit experts from both inside and outside the government who have thorough knowledge of technological trends and the ability to identify potential applications to defense equipment, he said during a speech in September in Washington, D.C., at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Jon Gravett, a principal for Indo-Pacific research and analysis at Janes, noted that Japan is looking to export conventional military platforms in coming years.

However, “what we’re seeing and what we will see over the next 10 years is increased focus on non-conventional systems, non-conventional technologies, dual-use technologies, artificial intelligence, cyber, all these data analytics,” he said during a recent webinar hosted by the International Security Industry Council of Japan. “All these technologies are being born in the commercial domains, and it puts Japan in a very strong position to support regional countries when they’re looking to develop these.”

Many of the types of technologies that Japan’s military could benefit from do not require costly investments when compared with the price tag for building, operating and maintaining large manned platforms, according to a recent RAND Corp. report, “Preparing Japan’s Multi-Domain Defense Force for the Future Battlespace Using Emerging Technologies.”

“Some of these technology areas primarily require investments in personnel who can design and oversee development of AI, big data, autonomous, cyber and EW systems,” the report said. “In addition, Japan can leverage commercial interest and investments in key technology areas to aid in their development and operationalization.”

Several years ago, Japan relaxed long-standing limitations on arms exports. However, its ambitions to become a major international weapons supplier face a number of hurdles, including the fact that Japan has a relatively small number of companies that are focused exclusively on defense items, experts say.

“That project [to boost exports of weapon systems] is proceeding incrementally, and so it’s difficult to foresee Japan exporting military equipment to the U.S. on a grand scale,” said Nick Szechenyi, deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

However, there is potential for co-development of defense equipment and leveraging dual-use technologies, he added.

Like the Ministry of Defense, the Pentagon is looking to leverage the billions of dollars in technology investments from the commercial sector that could aid its next-generation systems.

Stokes noted Japan is a tech powerhouse that is world-class across many sectors, including satellites and robotics.

“Cooperation on critical and emerging technologies, both civilian and military, will be a key pillar of the U.S.-Japan alliance going forward,” he said. “Both sides, working together, have the potential to be more than the sum of their parts.”

The Pentagon has a foreign cooperative testing program that enables the military to evaluate foreign technology that could give U.S. warfighters “overmatch capability,” noted William “Randy” Everett, an international armaments cooperation official at the Defense Department.

Several years ago, he was part of an FCT team that went to Japan for the first time after Tokyo changed its constitutional restrictions and became more willing to work with other countries on military tech. “That relationship is continuing,” he told National Defense at the Future Force Capabilities Conference and Exhibition hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.

The department also has an international technology center located in Tokyo where U.S. military officers and scientists are working with their Japanese counterparts and looking for new technologies, he noted.

The Biden administration sees Japan as the most important partner for the United States in its long-term competition with China, Tsuneo “Nabe” Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, wrote in a report earlier this year, “The Strategic Significance of the Japan-U.S. Summit — Challenges for Economic and Security Cooperation vis-a-vis China.”

There is a high degree of interoperability between the SDF and the U.S. military, and there are “synergies” in capabilities, he said.
Japan and the United States also share democratic values, he noted.

“There is no doubt that the U.S. expects Japan, a long-time ally, to be a frontline state in the era of confrontation with China,” he said.

Part 1 - The Quad: Creating a Defense Tech Alliance to Stand Against China

Part 3 - India Manages Diverse Arms Sources for Military Modernization

Part 4 - U.S., Australia Increasing Tech Transfer to Take on China

Topics: Global Defense Market

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