The Rising Sun and its rising military might

Updated On: Jul 27, 2007

International attention has been drawn to the fact that Japan’s military is shedding its restraints and actively taking part in exercises that involved dogfights and dropping of live bombs. 

As an IHT article opined “the exercise would have been unremarkable for almost any other powerful military, but it was highly significant for Japan, a country still restrained by a Constitution that renounces war and allows forces only for its defense”. 

The exercise in Guam which involved the dropping of 500-pound live bombs on Farallon de Medinilla, a tiny island in the western Pacific, clearly demonstrated Japan’s capability to surgically attack a target in North Korea and serves as a warning to its nemesis. For this bombing run, Tokyo deployed its newest fighter jets, the F-2, developed by Japan with technological transfers from the US. This fighter is a dual-purpose machine that blurs the line between offensive and defensive weaponry. The F-2s were able to fly the 2,700 kilometers, or 1,700 miles, from northern Japan to Guam without refueling. Other than the F-2, it is not well-known that F-15s fighter jets, which are possibly the most sophisticated contemporary generation fighter, forms the core of Japan's fighter force and are manufactured in Japan under a licence agreement with the United States. Japan thus has the capabilities for research, production and manufacture of advanced fighter aircraft.

Japan's 241,000-strong military is also Asia's most sophisticated with its $40 billion military budget has ranked amongst the world's top five and it also has substantial nonmilitary budgets to launch spy satellites and strengthen its coast guard. From Micronesia to IraqJapan's military has been rapidly eliminating restraints placed on it since WWII. In the Indian Ocean, Japanese destroyers and refueling ships are helping the U.S. military in Afghanistan and, in Iraq, Japanese planes are transporting cargo and U.S. soldiers to Baghdad from Kuwait. In carrying out such transportation duties, the Japanese government declines to say whether the planes have carried weapons other than those carried by soldiers.

Japan still lacks the nuclear submarines, long-range missiles or large aircraft carriers that amount to real power projection but so do most East Asian countries except for China. But it is likely catch up. Japanhas much more on its plate for future plans. It is interested in buying (and probably likely to get in the future) the F-22 Raptor, a U.S. stealth fighter with acute offensive capabilities that facilitates penetrating contested airspace and destroying enemy targets. Japan is also purchasing four Boeing 767 air tankers that will allow its planes to refuel in midair, as well as two aircraft carriers that operate helicopters and vertically take off and landing aircraft.

The international media seems to be surprised by Japan’s show of military might. But should it? Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US, the world’s only superpower has urged Japan to accelerate its military capabilities buildup in order to take on more duties in East Asia played by Washington in the past. Japan is also USA's largest and most important partner in developing and financing a missile defense shield in Asia. Some Japanese ground and air force commands are also training inside US bases in Japan. The US’s only other important deputy in East AsiaAustralia, is far weaker than Japan militarily or economically and is unlikely to be able to do the job for Washington in being bulwark against major conflicts in Northeast Asia.

At the height of the fear of rise of China in recent years, TaiwanMongoliaAustralia and some Southeast Asian countries have all encouraged Japan to be more proactive and take up a leadership role. However, when Washington goes ahead to push Japan towards remilitarization, China and South Korea, have publicly and strongly expressed their fears of a Japanese military buildup. South Korea, for one, reacted sharply to Japan's desire to buy the latest stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor. In a recent ceremony unveiling South Korea’s first destroyer equipped with the advanced Aegis weapons system, Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun said, “Northeast Asia is still in an arms race, and we cannot just sit back and watch.”

Perhaps the arms race is going to intensify as the latest news revolved around Japan’s desire to develop its own fighter jet, a next-generation stealth plane.  Ironically, this may also be a sign of Japan’s growing independence from the US and a sign of its growing confidence.  The defence ministry has announced that part of the reason for developing its own fighter jet is to gain an edge in negotiations with the United States when it selects new fighter jets.  Also, US Congress has imposed a ban on the sale or license of the F-22 raptor to any foreign government, largely to safeguard its advanced technology.  (26 July 2007)


Japan's military shedding its restraints (Straits Times, 24 July 2007)

Japan to design stealth jet: report (Straits Times, 24 July 2007)

Japan Dropped Live Bombs in Guam Sorties (Chosun Ilbo, 24 July 2007)

Bomb by Bomb, Japan Sheds Military Restraints (NY Times, 23 July 2007)

Japan's more provocative military makes neighbors nervous (IHT, 22 July 2007