Media watch: Is Japan’s new defense posture vis-a-vis the U.S. a case of the tail wagging the dog?

Global Hawk

Though the Japanese government’s intentions to double the defense budget over the next five years has caused some controversy here, in the U.S. it has mostly met with unequivocal support. President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other top officials have unanimously praised Japan’s “initiative,” saying that it proves that the country is taking a much needed leadership role in the protection of not only its own territory, but also democracy throughout eastern Asia. 

The huge budget increase will go towards hardware, most of which will be purchased from the U.S. Consequently, Japanese journalists who specialize in defense matters have been studying the proposals and several have wondered out loud if the U.S. isn’t taking advantage of Japan’s sudden willingness to buy lots of weapons. A Dec. 13 article on the website News Post 7 includes an interview with veteran reporter Shigeru Handa, who points out that a lot of the equipment Japan has pledged to buy from the U.S. is outdated and no longer that useful to the American military. It’s as if the U.S. saw Japan as the ideal place to dump its surplus and supperannuated stock of missiles and aircraft. 

Handa was especially curious about Japan’s possible purchase of 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles by 2027. Tomahawks can be used to attack enemy bases overseas and will be deployed mainly on ships. The technology was developed 40 years ago, and some experts in Japan have questioned their effectiveness in today’s battle scenarios. However, what concerns Handa is the method of purchase. Japan will buy the missiles using the American Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, which, as Wikipedia puts it, “facilitates the sales of U.S. arms, defense equipment and services, and military training to foreign goverments.” In 2011, Japan spent about ¥60 billion through the program. In 2020, that spending had increased to ¥500 billion, meaning purchases of weapons and attendant services from the U.S. has increased almost tenfold in the last decade. As Handa points out, other world governments use FMS to buy weapons and equipment from the U.S. government, based on the U.S. Arms Export Act, but they tend to buy only the latest systems available. For the most part, Japan is buying older equipment. 

Moreover, FMS is structured in such a way that the price for the materials bought is whatever the U.S. wants to charge, and in many cases, due to shipping and other delays, the final price is much higher than the initial estimate when the purchase decision was made. So often Japan ends up paying much more than they originally budgeted for these weapons, a situation that Handa says causes problems all the time for Japanese auditors. 

As an example, Handa offers the case of the F35 fighter jet. Originally, Japan said it wanted to buy 42 jets, and then changed the order to 147, so in July 2020 the U.S. State Dept. authorized the sale of the additional 105 planes. In Oct. 2019, the U.S. Defense Dept. had agreed that Japan would pay $71 million, or ¥7.8 billion, for each plane, but after the State Dept. authorization, the price for each additional jet tripled to $220 million, or ¥24.2 billion. In accordance with FMS guidelines, Japan had to pay that price. Handa goes on to explain that the F35 features the most advanced datalink system, which is important in group fighting situations, but the plane itself is complicated to fly and very heavy, and in battle exercises it has often lost to the older and ligher F16 fighter jet, so it isn’t as versatile as it’s cracked up to be. 

The same goes double for the infamous Osprey V22 tilt rotor transport aircraft, which the Japanese public knows about because it seems so accident-prone. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have already purchased Ospreys for the purpose of transporting troops to remote islands. In 2015, the State Dept. approved the sale of Ospreys to Japan at a unit price of $72 million, or ¥8.6 billion. But when Japan finally bought 17 Ospreys later, they were charged ¥360 billion, meaning that each aircraft cost ¥21.1 billion. Even more perplexing is the fact that this price does not include replacement parts, which is a vital consideration considering the aircraft’s troubled history of machinery problems. Last August, in fact, the U.S. Air Force discontinued using Ospreys because of all the defects in its power units. 

Another item that has suddenly attracted attention is the Global Hawk, a large remotely controlled reconnaissance craft that the U.S. Air Force has already decided to retire. Way back in 2014, the Shinzo Abe administration decided to buy three of them, but the first one was not delivered until March of 2022. The original price was ¥51 billion for the lot, but now Japan is paying ¥63 billion. Post 7 reports that Japan’s defense ministry complained to the U.S. about this seeming cost-performance discrepancy that emerged since the original deal was made—a higher price for a model that now seems out-of-date, since a new Global Hawk is now being developed. 

As Asahi Shimbun reported last October, Global Hawks, like many other air-borne hardware, require ongoing maintenance, and for various reasons, Japan cannot take care of the aircraft themselves. They have to pay for U.S. personnel, not only to maintain the machines, but for their room and board in Japan as they carry out that maintenance. So while the cost of purchasing 3 units is ¥61 billion, the cost of maintaining them over 20 years is estimated to be ¥295 billion. Maintenance and spare parts are where the U.S. military really cashes in. In 2027, Japan will start operating “stand-off electronic warfare aircraft” that can “neutralize the enemy’s electronic equipment.” The purchase price for the four aircraft is expected to be ¥185 billion, but the spare parts over the next 30 years will amount to about ¥538 billion. And since these aircraft are still under development, those estimates will likely go up by 2027. 

The Global Hawk deal is a good example of a military purchase that was made for political reasons, as a number of journalists have implied. It was designed for reconnaissance missions over land, and used extensively during the Iraq War. However, Japan, an island country, would require reconnaissance missions over water, so it’s not clear exactly how the aircraft will be used.

These problems have plagued the Japan-U.S. alliance for decades. In 2002, the Ground Self-Defense Forces procured some Apache Longbow helicopters to replace its superannuated Cobra helicopters. The GSDF wanted 62 aircraft, but when they heard that the price was ¥6 billion a piece, they cut the purchase order to 13 units. Subsequently, Boeing, the manufacturer, decided to suspend production. Pondering the possibility of not being able to secure spare parts for the 13 helicopters, the GSDF then learned that general maintenance for one unit would cost ¥10 billion a year, so they cancelled the whole order. 

In 1980, Japan was supposed to co-develop the F2 fighter jet with the U.S., but Congress refused to authorize the disclosure of U.S. control software technology, which means Japan had to develop it on their own, and that cost a lot of money. Then, after development was finished, the U.S. would not allow Japan to manufacture the finished product in Japan. As a result, the initial estimate of ¥8 billion per plane rose to ¥12 billion, thus forcing the defense agency at the time to reduce the number they purchased. 

That’s why Japan is now developing its next-generation fighter jet in collaboration with the UK and Italy. Japan just can’t afford the U.S.

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