Japanese Stealth Fighters Could Get Land-Attack Cruise Missiles
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force looks for offensive weapons
Japan’s strict commitment to self-defense meant that for decades its military lacked certain weapons and equipment such as precision-guided munitions, land-attack missiles and true “power projection” aircraft such as refueling tankers and long-distance transport planes.
In the first several decades after World War II, this made sense—Japan’s pacifistic military would focus solely on repelling an attack on its territory. But with the proliferation of precision weapons and ballistic missiles in the region, this absolute adherence to self-defense ran into some conceptual problems.
If North Korea or China can attack Japan with ballistic missiles, and Japan can’t shoot back, then it can’t really defend itself.
This has been changing, and it might change further according to a report in Yomiuri. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force is considering arming its F-35A Joint Strike Fighters with the Norwegian-made Joint Strike Missile, which would grant the JASDF the ability to carry out ground attacks from standoff ranges.
If true, it would represent a shift for Japan, but part of an ongoing one which is stretching the strict and purely defensive doctrine Japan’s military held to during most of the post-war era.
In the 21st century, Japan bought KC-767 and KC-130 aerial refueling planes from the United States, boosting the country’s ability to project air power beyond its borders. It retired its domestically-built F-1 fighters and replaced them with F-2s—closely based on the F-16 Fighting Falcon—and gave them precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions.
If Japan acquires the Joint Strike Missile, it would give the country what will likely become one of the world’s best land-attack cruise missiles. An in-development variant of Norwegian firm Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile, the subsonic JSM is specially modified to fit inside the F-35’s internal weapons bay.
The NSM is an anti-ship weapon only, the JSM can strike targets both at sea and on land.
Like the NSM, the JSM is also somewhat stealthy. It flies low and its shape is designed to make it harder for radar to detect. For the same purpose, it relies on a passive seeker and doesn’t emit radio frequency waves, which could be detected. The missile’s maximum range is 345 miles.
Japan is procuring 42 F-35As—the same kind flown by the U.S. Air Force—and the first Japanese-made Joint Strike Fighter rolled out of its Mitsubishi factory on June 5, 2017. But the JSM won’t be ready until around 2025.
Above—JASDF trainers with a Japanese F-35A at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. U.S. Air Force photo. At top—a Joint Strike Missile fitted to an F-35 in Fort Worth. Lockheed photo
Keep in mind that the F-35 also pushes the boundaries of Japan’s traditional commitment to maintaining a strictly defensive military. As a stealth plane designed to covertly creep past enemy radars, it makes for a more effective penetrating ground attacker than a defensive-minded interceptor—for which there are more economical options.
There’s a reason for Japan’s F-35 purchase, and North Korea’s ballistic missile threat is one of them. But most of all, China’s own arms buildup and aerial patrols into the East China Sea has pushed the JASDF into a rethink—and a realization that it won’t be able to defend Japan solely by keeping to Japanese territory.
“The Chinese threat factor has affected all elements of the JASDF’s strategic change, including the JASDF’s goal, the air-to-ground operation concept, the movement of forces, the aggressive intercept activity, the various acquisitions of fighters and weapons, the development of next-generation fighters, and the strengthening of the air defense system,” Kisung Nam of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California wrote in a 2016 paper.
It’s important to note the JASDF does not see acquiring offensive capabilities as representing a shift toward becoming an offensive force—but a mix of offense and defense designed to balance the threat from China and North Korea. If a future foe can strike Japan with long-range missiles, thereby bypassing the homeland’s air power, then Japan should strike back.
But that’s also how arms races can start. Because the fact remains that a low-observable land-attack missile is still a land-attack missile, and if Japan starts acquiring them and sticking them inside stealth fighters, Beijing might still interpret that as a more offensive move than Tokyo would prefer to convey. Intent matters, but capability matters more.