Japan’s Air Power Crunch

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Japan’s Air Power Crunch

Japan needs to revamp its air force. But with a tight budget and constitutional constraints, will it have to import it all?

Growing threats from China and North Korea, plus the aging of Cold War hardware, mean Japan is due for a revamping of its air power. But Tokyo's aerospace needs are complicated by constitutional restrictions, a costly natural disaster and general economic stagnation.

‘The Air Self-Defence Force will need over the coming decade or two: a fifth-generation fighter aircraft; a new aircraft for transport and aerial refuelling; more modern helicopters; effective missile and air defences; and improved intelligence-collection assets, from an updated AWACs (radar plane) to more reliance on advanced unmanned systems and even space platforms,’ says Patrick Cronin, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

Some of these requirements are already being addressed by current acquisitions efforts. Kawasaki Heavy Industries began flight testing the twin-engine C-2 transport plane last year; 40 are planned. Boeing is working on a $100-million upgrade to the ASDF’s four E-767 radar planes. Boeing also delivered the last of four 767-based tankers last year. 

Other needs haven’t been met.

Most importantly, the ASDF has yet to select a new fighter to meet the ‘F-X’ requirement for up to 50 planes to replace 30-year-old F-4s. Boeing F/A-18E/F, Lockheed Martin's F-35 and the Eurofighter Typhoon are all vying for the contract, with a down-select slated for this year or next. The winner will be required to share some production efforts with Japanese industry, and could be in a strong position to also replace Japan's F-15s and F-2s.

Even with fighter co-production to help sustain it, Japan’s military aerospace industry will struggle to fulfil current and future ASDF requirements. In the last 15 years, production of warplanes in Japan has declined from a peak of around 70 per year to around a dozen today, with a commensurate erosion of skills and efficiency. ‘Japan’s military aircraft design and production capabilities have fallen precipitously,’ says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, based in Virginia.

A 1 percent GDP constitutional cap on defence spending and laws barring weapons exports limit Japanese aerospace’s potential for a quick revival. That means Tokyo will have to import more and more of its combat aircraft. That, in turn, limits Japan's autonomy as a military power.  

Industrial concerns aren’t the only challenge, Cronin says. ‘On top of these “hardware” needs, the JASDF will also need to invest in the software of effective joint and combined strategic planning (from regional disaster response to concepts such as AirSea Battle), sustainable basing (e.g. dual civil-military use and US-Japan use), and experience in the field.’