National | ANALYSIS

Japan defense budget request highest ever as Abe boosts military

Officials seek ¥5.05 trillion amid Abe's security push

by Kiyoshi Takenaka

Reuters

Japan’s defense planners are seeking their biggest budget ever for the coming fiscal year, including a bulk order of patrol planes and a stealthier submarine, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bolsters the military in the face of a territorial spat with China and North Korea’s nuclear program.

The Defense Ministry on Friday requested a 3.5 percent increase to ¥5.05 trillion for the fiscal year starting next April. If approved, it would be the third annual increase in a row and would more than reverse the decade of cuts Abe ended after coming to office in December 2012.

The hawkish premier, taking a more assertive stance on national security, has also ended a ban on Japanese soldiers fighting abroad and eased curbs on weapons exports.

By testing the constraints of Japan’s pacifist postwar Constitution, Abe has angered some neighbors, especially Beijing, which accuses him of reviving the nation’s wartime militarism.

Japan, in turn, is wary of the rapid military buildup in China, which has overtaken Japan in recent years as the world’s second-biggest economy. Beijing’s military budget has jumped fourfold over the past decade to 808 billion yuan ($132 billion), nearly triple Japan’s.

In recent years, Sino-Japanese tensions have ramped up over the ownership of a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. Patrol ships and military planes from both countries now routinely shadow each other in the area.

In a bid to better protect remote islands, the Defense Ministry wants to buy six F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin Corp. as well as 20 P-1 patrol planes from Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. — a bulk purchase to cut per-unit cost.

The government says procurement reform, including bulk purchases for multiyear projects, will save ¥700 billion over five years.

In another request meant to patrol the waters plied by China, the ministry is seeking ¥64.4 billion for an upgraded Soryu class submarine, which can stay submerged far longer than the sub of the same class it requested for this fiscal year for 20 percent less.

The new sub has a propulsion system that uses long-running lithium-ion batteries, replacing one that used liquid oxygen to run a diesel engine, allowing it to stay underwater for around two weeks. The new design allows a “significant extension to the submarine’s ability to stay submerged,” a ministry official said.

Australia has said it is interested in the Soryu design as a possible replacement for its Collins class subs, which need to suck air through a snorkel at the surface to use their diesel engines while submerged.

Japan’s shopping list also includes unmanned surveillance planes and tilt-rotor aircraft that take off and land like a helicopter but fly like a plane, as the government aims to boost its monitoring and troop-deployment capabilities.

The ministry does not specify which models of tilt-rotor aircraft and unmanned drones it has in mind because talks with potential suppliers are ongoing, but the V-22 Osprey, built by Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter, is the only tilt-rotor plane in military use — including by U.S. forces in Japan.

Besides cutting-edge weapons, the budget request is boosted by the planned replacement of aging government planes, used for purposes such as the prime minister’s overseas trips — akin to the U.S. president’s Air Force One — with two of Boeing’s 777-300ER jets.

When expenses for the new government planes and costs associated with the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan are excluded, the budget request comes to ¥4.9 trillion, up 2.4 percent from this year.

The Defense Ministry is also eyeing North Korea, seeking its seventh destroyer equipped with the Aegis ballistic-missile defense system.

“We will fortify our system of defending the whole of our country continuously and in a multi-layered fashion against ballistic missile attacks,” the ministry said in a statement.

Much of the Japan sits within range of North Korea’s mid-range Rodong missiles. The ministry’s latest white paper calls Pyongyang’s military activity a grave destabilizing factor for Japan and the rest of the world.