TCS Daily


What Is Japan's Potential Military Might?

By Harold Hutchison - October 31, 2006 12:00 AM

What is Japan's potential military might? In light of the recent events involving North Korea, this is not an idle question. Japanese re-armament is probably the biggest X-factor in East Asia, and one that has the potential to make a lot of people nervous.

Since surrendering to the United States in 1945, Japan has chosen to take minimal steps towards military matters, choosing a strictly defensive posture. In fact, their military is not a military at all - they are referred to as self-defense forces. Japan only spends about 1% of its Gross Domestic Product on its self-defense forces. In 2005, this came out to roughly $42.1 billion. This is slightly less than the United Kingdom spent in 2005 ($48.3 billion) - but the UK was spending 2.8% of its GDP.

What did Japan get on this 1% approach? Arguably the best Navy in East Asia. Japan has 40 destroyers, 18 of which have entered service since 1995, with at least two more modern vessels (of the Atago-class) on the way. Japan has acquired eight new submarines (the Oyashio-class), with at least two others on the way. Japan is also building a new class of helicopter destroyer to replace an older class currently in service. One of the designs for this 13,500-ton new helicopter destroyer features a flat deck with an offset superstructure, similar to the small "Harrier carrier" like those used in several European navies.

Japan's Air Self-Defense Force is also equipped with modern aircraft. The backbone of this force is 225 F-15J/DJ fighters, roughly the equivalent to the F-15C Eagle, an air superiority fighter used by the United States Air Force. Japan has designed the F-2A/B, which is a variant of the F-16, and currently has about 49 in service, with plans to get up to 130. The F-2 is best described as an F-16 that took steroids, with thirteen hardpoints for carrying weapons to the F-16's nine, and about 50% more payload than the F-16. Japan also has 70 F-4EJ fighters in service.

Now, imagine if Japan were to increase its defense spending to the same level of GDP as the UK or South Korea. That would push Japan's defense budget to the range of $109 to $124 billion a year. The latter figure is fifty percent larger than China's present defense spending. If Japan went to spending the same amount of its GDP as China did, it would be spending $190 billion, well over twice China's military budget.

What could Japan get for that? Figure that a major part of any Japanese buildup would be an increase in its Maritime Self-Defense Force. What would that increase entail? They could easily increase the JMSDF by at least 50%, and this would largely consist of destroyers from the Atago and Takanami classes, the latest destroyers in service with the JMSDF. The JMSDF would also acquire more Oyashio-class submarines, and the new light carriers. Japan could even buy the F-35B (the replacement for the AV-8B Harrier). Japan would probably also buy more F-2s and probably also buy the F-22. If Japan really felt they had to, they could even develop and start deploying nuclear weapons within six months of Prime Minister Abe giving the order to start.

Japan has the potential to become one of the top military powers in the world. All it really needs to do is to make the decision. Given that in the past ten years, East Asia has become a much touchier and more dangerous neighborhood, that decision may be closer than many people realize.

The author is a contributor to Strategypage.

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