Everybody Relax—Japan Is NOT Rearming
A handful of flashy new weapons doesn’t mean a return to the militaristic 1930s
For months now, the Western and Asian media have been all worked up over the idea that Japan is in the throes of a major defense buildup. The breathless news reports generally describe Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as right winger seeking to boost Japan’s military capabilities.
Many of the articles describe what’s going on as “rearming,” or “re-militarization.” Most of the reports are chock full of tired cliches about Japan. If you’re really lucky, the writer will slip in a reference to samurai.
The articles have one other thing in common: they don’t cite any actual numbers. That’s because the numbers to support the “re-militarization” claim don’t really exist.
Of course, everything is relative—even military strength. So strictly speaking, Japan is engaged in a small defense buildup.
A very small buildup.
Loaded past, loaded present
Japan was once an aggressive expansionist power. The island nation’s invasion and brutal occupation of much of Asia—particularly Korea and China—have not been forgotten or even forgiven. The legacy of the Pacific War continues to define strategy and international politics in the region.
After World War II, Japan adopted a constitution that banned war and war-making capability. But the humbled country affirmed its right to self-defense. So instead of regular armed forces it created “self-defense forces” exclusively oriented toward, well, defense.
Offensive weapons, such as cruise missiles, aircraft carriers and bombers were not allowed. Nuclear weapons were explicitly not allowed.
With 247,000 personnel, Japan’s Self Defense Forces are relatively small. At one SDF member per 516 civilians, Japan has a much lower service member-to-civilian ratio than the United States (219) or Russia (187), but higher than China (600).
Japan has also capped defense spending at around one percent of Gross National Product, less than spent by most countries in the G-20.
Still, when you have a recent reputation as a low-profile, anti-militarist country with an aggressive past, any step in the direction of military expansion makes the news, no matter how small. Moreover, terms used in the press such as “re-armament” and “re-militarization” are loaded with the baggage of an emotional and traumatic past and don’t reflect the Japan of today.
A shift in priorities
During the Cold War, Japan worried that the Soviet Union would attempt to invade the northern island of Hokkaido. As a result, the heaviest concentration of Japanese forces was located in the northern third of Japan.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union the old strategic vision sputtered along, absent a new threat. There was no meaningful reform.
Now after more than 20 years adrift, the rise of China and pressing Chinese territorial claims have shifted Japan’s defense focus from the far north to the far south. Japan’s Senkaku islands are now claimed by China. Of the hundreds of islands in Japan’s southern island chains only one, Okinawa, has more than a radar station to defend it.
This abrupt southward change in tack has meant a geographic shift in manpower, equipment and funds. Radar stations to monitor Chinese air forces are being modernized throughout southern Japan and the Ryukyus. Naha Air Base in Okinawa is being expanded in order to accommodate a second squadron of F-15J air superiority fighters. Small garrisons designed to conduct area surveillance are being established at islands such as Yonaguni near Taiwan.
At the same time Japan is making targeted reductions in cost and force structure. The number of main battle tanks is set to fall from 740 to 300, a drop of 60 percent in part accomplished by gutting the 7th Armored Division on Hokkaido.
The buildup that isn’t
Japanese defense spending has essentially been essentially flat for more than 10 years. Spending has averaged $47 billion dollars since 1992 and actually declined year over year from 2002 to 2012. Low inflation—and even at times deflation—has kept that number relatively constant.
A three-percent defense budget increase—just over $1.4 billion dollars—has been requested for 2014. Much of the boost is going towards personnel, upgrades of existing equipment, increased training expenses and increased operations and maintenance costs.
But what about equipment? In 2014 Japan is getting a new maritime patrol aircraft, a destroyer, a submarine, a minesweeper, a submarine rescue ship, two refurbished marine amphibious vehicles, six helicopters, one cargo aircraft, Patriot PAC-3 missiles and four F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Aside from the Joint Strike Fighter purchase—which actually makes up a large chunk of the overall defense budget increase—the weapons procurement budget is fairly typical of the past 20 years.
This is hardly what one would describe as “re-arming” or “re-militarizing”.
No boost in uniforms
Generally the most reliable indicator of a military buildup is an increase of uniformed personnel. People are the bedrock of a nation’s armed forces, doing everything from peeling potatoes to manning vehicles and aircraft. If you want to field more weapons systems, you need more people.
That’s not what’s happening in Japan. Not by a long shot.
As of 2013, the SDF has 247,172 troops spread among three branches: the Ground, Martime and Air Self Defense Forces. Between 2012 and 2013, the GSDF grew by 422 personnel. Based on the “tooth-to-tail ratio” ubiquitous to modern armies, that translates to an extra 42 trigger-pullers and 380 support personnel.
The MSDF grew by 13, and the ASDF grew by 13. The Joint Staff grew by 8 personnel, and defense intelligence didn’t grow at all. If you’re looking to paint a picture of Japan re-arming, the 2014 budgetary request is equally disappointing: the entire SDF wants to add 190 personnel.
To be fair, there are a number of big-ticket weapons buys on the horizon for Japan. The GSDF will soon place an order for 20 V-22 Ospreys to fly in reinforcements from the Japanese mainland to remote islands.
The ground branch is also buying a number of new Mobile Combat Vehicles. Mounting a 105-millimeter gun, this eight-wheeled armored vehicle is designed to be moved quickly by air to reinforce Japanese territory. Lightly armored, it sacrifices offensive capability in favor of tactical mobility. These will replace many of Japan’s tanks and will turn the GSDF into even more of a defensive force.
The air branch is buying 42 F-35 fighters to replace ancient F-4s acquired in the early 1970s. This too sounds like a buildup until one realizes that the 42 F-35s are replacing 80 F-4s. Now it sounds like a build-down.
One area where there might be real growth for the ASDF is in the area of support aircraft. Japan has four KC-767 aerial tankers and is looking to buy more. Tokyo is also interested in acquiring four Global Hawk spy drones.
The navy is the only service that looks to be undergoing a real buildup. Japan plans an increase in submarines, from 16 to 22, to counter China’s own naval expansion. Considering China has at least 41 submarines of a modern or semi-modern design, 22 Japanese subs does not sound particularly inflammatory.
The undersea buildup will be achieved not by constructing more submarines—shipbuilding is holding steady at one new submarine a year—but by upgrading older submarines such as the Oyashio class to keep them in service longer.
Finally, two additional Aegis destroyers are planned, bringing the total number of these highly capable warships to eight. However, aside from a handful of anti-ship missiles, Japan’s Aegis destroyers deliberately lack offensive capability.
The real changes: policy and bureaucracy
The real change in Japan’s defense posture is something the military doesn’t have much to do with it. It has everything to do with policies, politicians and bureaucrats.
Many people believe that constraints on Japan’s national security establishment that prevent it from acting like any normal state are enshrined in the constitution.
Not true. Policies such as the arms export ban, prohibition on weapons with offensive uses, one-percent GDP military spending cap and others are just that—policies. Even the ban on nuclear weapons is legislative and not constitutionally-bound. With the proper support from the prime minister’s office and the Diet, these policies could be reversed quickly.
Prime Minister Abe has called for a number of defense policy changes the political leadership in Japan has long demanded. Most of these changes, such as arms export reform, the ability to lend mutual aid to allies and the ability to rescue citizens abroad are considered a right by most states. In that sense, Japan is merely playing catch-up.
Japan has also just set up its first national security council. Modeled after the American National Security Council, the new body will study and monitor defense issues. In addition to keeping an eye on China and North Korea and maintaining ties with allies, the Japanese NSC could push various defense issues that the prime minister has taken a personal interest in.
The NSC can be expected to be a main driver of Japanese defense policy and reform. What direction that takes will now more than ever be driven by whoever sits in the prime minister’s seat.
The “Japan is re-arming” meme is a myth not born out by an examination of the actual numbers. Japan’s defense spending, although increasing, is still much too small to bear any resemblance to the military build-up of the 1930s.
And it’s important to keep in mind that although change is coming, it’s being driven externally. Even when Japanese politicians have desired defense policy reform, they haven’t been able to push it through until some incident with North Korea or China warms the public to the idea.
It was only in 2012, after China began aggressively pushing territorial claims in the East China Sea, that Japan finally began to increase defense spending modestly. Other policy issues—such as those governing arms exports, offensive weapons and the unofficial defense spending cap—have been maintained for decades.
Whether or not these policies change in coming years in large part depends upon events outside Japan. The world will get the Japan that it creates.