With the government budget for fiscal 2001 now in preparation, a controversial question concerning defense procurement looms large: Do the Self-Defense Forces need in-flight refueling aircraft? The Defense Agency is requesting appropriations to purchase one such aircraft in the year beginning next April.

Under the present circumstances, the answer to the question is at best uncertain. It is doubtful whether Japan should bolster its air defense capability in such a manner when the possibility of military confrontation in areas around the nation is visibly diminishing, as evidenced by recent moves toward dialogue and rapprochement with North Korea.

The ruling coalition is divided on this question. New Komeito is taking a cautious stand. Even key members of the Liberal Democratic Party, including Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka and Policy Research Council Chairman Shizuka Kamei, are skeptical. The final decision is to be made in late December when the budget is finalized. The government and the ruling parties must be very careful to avoid a hasty conclusion.

In-flight refueling aircraft, also known as “flying tankers,” supply fuel to fighters and air warning and control systems while in flight, allowing them to fly an extended time and distance. The critical point is that this enables SDF fighters to penetrate foreign territory, if necessary. Therefore, the argument goes, introduction of flying tankers may contradict the nation’s basic policy of “exclusive defense,” which calls for the “necessary minimum” use of force in the event of armed attack from abroad.

In fact, when F-4 fighters were purchased for the first time from the United States, opposition parties criticized the move as running counter to the exclusively defense-oriented policy. As a result, the in-flight refueling device attached to the aircraft was removed. However, the Defense Agency continued efforts to introduce flying tankers on the grounds that their deployment would not violate the basic defense policy.

The appropriations request is based on a decision under the midterm defense-buildup program (fiscal 2001-2005) to deploy refueling aircraft as soon as possible. The agency’s explanation makes sense: The current “scramble” approach — standby fighters taking off to intercept incoming alien aircraft — has its limits because of rapid advances in aviation technology. For example, military aircraft are now capable of infiltrating foreign territory at extremely low altitudes or from extremely high altitudes. Also, sophisticated stealth technology makes it impossible to detect enemy aircraft by radar. It is therefore necessary, the explanation goes, to introduce flying tankers so that fighters and AWACS with an extended cruising radius can intercept or detect hostile aircraft at more distant points.

Military experts point out that refueling aircraft are already deployed in 25 countries, including Southeast Asian countries and China, and that they are no longer special equipment reserved for emergencies. The Defense Agency says in-flight refueling also has practical advantages, such as increasing the efficiency of flight training and alleviating base noise pollution through less frequent takeoffs and landings. The agency also says air tankers can be used as fuel transports.

There is no doubt, from a purely military standpoint, that an improved defense capability will make the SDF better prepared to repel or deter aggression. But the notion that its capability should be strengthened as much as possible is dangerous. For one thing, acquisition of refueling capability could contradict the principle of exclusive defense. In the long run, it could also undermine Japan’s own security by creating friction with neighboring nations.

The types of equipment the SDF should have, or the scope and extent of its capability are subject, of course, to constitutional and other constraints, and should be considered carefully in light of the situation in surrounding regions. Even in the current fluid situation, it requires a stretch of the imagination to think of a neighboring country that would plot to attack this nation with sophisticated weapons. There is, for all intents and purposes, no urgent need to introduce flying tankers, their military and other advantages notwithstanding.

In-flight refueling is compatible with the defense-only policy. The danger, however, is that acquisition of such advanced capability — which allows SDF fighters to reach deep into foreign territory — could cause anxiety or suspicion in neighboring countries. The government and ruling parties need to deal with the flying-tanker issue from a comprehensive perspective, not just from the military standpoint, with their sights set firmly on long-term regional stability as well as national security.

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