Forces: May 9, 2005

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  What is Japans potential military might? Can Japan be a military superpower again? This is one question that rarely is asked when one looks at the Asian landscape, mostly because India and China have caught most of the headlines.

Japan arguably has the second-best navy in the Pacific, centered around four helicopter-carrying destroyers, nine guided-missile destroyers, 34 destroyers, and 18 diesel-electric submarines. A large number of these ships (two of the guided-missile destroyers, 13 of the destroyers, and nine of the submarines) have entered service were since 1995, making this a very modern force. The rate of ship construction has held its own with China (which has added eight destroyers, 12 frigates, and 10 submarines in that timeframe), and this is with Japan arguably holding back.

Japans air force is similarly modern, and is built around the F-15J (a variant of the F-15C) and the F-2 (a stealthier version of the F-16 with four additional hardpoints). The total quantity of the F-15J force is about 200 aircraft (counting the combat-capable F-15DJ two-seater). Currently, 130 F-2s are authorized (49 are presently in service), but the figure could likely go higher as the 92 F-4EJ Kai Phantoms are retired as well. This is smaller than the 380 Su-27/Su-30MKKs in the Chinese air force, but Japan has a huge advantage, in airborne early warning aircraft, over China, having operated E-2s since the 1980s, and is now acquiring the E-767, four of which are currently in service. China might have four A-50 Mainstay aircraft in service as of 2005, but this is a huge if, and they are trailing Japan by 15 years in learning how to use them.

Japans economy is half that of China ($3.4 trillion to $6.7 trillion), but Japan gets its GDP from a population that is about 10 percent of Chinas. Japan also holds a significant lead in technology (for instance, the Civic and Prius hybrids that are on the road today were designed in Japan), and its shipbuilding program continues (two diesel-electric submarines, two helicopter-carrying destroyers, two new Aegis guided-missiles destroyers, and four more Takanami-class destroyers are planned to join the fleet by 2010). Japan is also keeping its military strength at this level by spending one percent of its GDP on defense. China spends about 1.7 percent of its GDP. As one can see, Japan has the potential to be a superpower. But what is holding it back?

The major military obstacle is the fact that Japan does not have power projection capabilities. This could be changing. One of the proposals for new warships includes  13,500-ton helicopter-carrying destroyers that look like a small aircraft carrier. These "destroyers" are actually  in the same weight class of the European Harrier carriers (the British Invincibles, the Italian Garibaldi, the Spanish Principe de Asturias, and the Thai Chakri Narubet-classes). While this ship is currently planned to carry helicopters only, European experience (particularly from the British) has shown that this can be an effective platform for fixed-wing aircraft. Japan also was reportedly considering purchasing Tomahawk cruise missiles in 2003. Capable of being launched from ships with a vertical-launch systems and from submarines, this could be another means of providing Japan a power-projection capability.

Japan also faces a major political/legal obstacle . Since the surrender to the United States in 1945, Japan has taken a low key approach to military matters, choosing a strictly defensive posture. In fact, Japans efforts in the 1980s to build a carrier were scrapped after political protests. Japan also has a very strict no nuclear weapons policy. That said, Japan reprocesses plutonium for its many nuclear power plants, which gives it the ability to make nuclear weapons if it needs to, and it does have a strong space-launch capability (many ICBMs have become the means to launch satellites and other vehicles into space). Japan could have a working nuclear weapons capability in one year should they decide to.

The underlying truth is that at this time, Japan is arguably the strongest power in East Asia and it is at this point with one hand tied behind its back. Should Japan be pushed to the point where it feels it needs to use all the military power it is capable of generating, it could readily become a superpower in military terms. Its tradition is of a highly-trained, professional force that can be a fierce adversary (as it demonstrated during World War II) would be there, and this has long worried Japans neighbors. The only reason Japan is not a superpower is because it has chosen not to pursue that course. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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