Clarify intentions behind the new defense program

The new national defense guidelines and the record ¥27.47 trillion five-year defense spending plan, both adopted by the Cabinet this week, highlight the security threat to Japan from China’s military buildup and call for beefing up the nation’s defense in new domains of warfare such as cyberspace and outer space. They also feature plans to introduce equipment that can potentially be used to overstep Japan’s “defense-only” posture, such as aircraft carriers and long-range cruise missiles capable of striking enemy bases. The government needs to make clear the true intentions behind their deployment.

The guidelines, updated for the first time since 2013 — and the second time under the current administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — set the policy for the nation’s defense buildup over the next 10 years, and the midterm spending program, which outlines the specific spending and deployment of Self-Defense Forces hardware in line with the guidelines, represents an increase of ¥2.8 trillion from the current plan covering the period from 2014 to 2018.

Calling for building a “multi-dimensional joint defense force,” the guidelines put emphasis on beefing up defense capabilities in the fields of cyberspace, outer space and electronic warfare that have the potential to “fundamentally change the shape of the nation’s security” and stress the need for the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces to act flexibly across all kinds of domains. Abe emphasizes the need for a “complete departure” from the conventional concept of ground, sea and air forces, and calls for the reform of Japan’s defense forces “at a speed fundamentally different from” the past.

Still, the basic manpower structure of the SDF — 150,000 personnel in the GSDF, 47,000 in the MSDF and 45,000 in the ASDF — and the budgetary allocation — roughly 40 percent for the GSDF and 30 percent each for the MSDF and ASDF — do not appear likely to change significantly.

Since Abe’s return to the helm of government in 2012, his administration has steadily increased defense spending, and it is expected to hit a record high ¥5.26 trillion in the fiscal 2019 budget.

The new buildup program also calls for massive purchases of defense equipment from the United States, including 18 F-35B stealth fighters, two Aegis Ashore ground-based missile defense units as well as long-range cruise missiles. These purchases — mainly through the U.S. foreign military sales arrangement in which Japan buys the equipment at prices set by the U.S. — come at a time when Japan is under intense pressure from the Trump administration to reduce its trade surplus with the U.S.

Some of the purchase and deployment plans have raised suspicions that Japan is overstepping its stated “defense-only” posture. The spending program calls for upgrading the MSDF’s Izumo-class helicopter carriers to enable them to transport and launch fighter jets, such as the short takeoff/vertical landing F-35B. That would effectively turn the MSDF’s Izumo and Kaga into aircraft carriers capable of engaging in combat in open oceans.

Still, the government denies that the upgrade will turn the MSDF vessels into “offensive carriers” — which it has thus far proclaimed it will not possess since such equipment would overstep the boundary of the “minimum necessary force” for the nation’s self-defense. Stating their deployment is meant to enhance the defense of islands in the Pacific Ocean and other areas where not many airfields exist, it insists on calling the upgraded vessels “multi-purpose destroyers” on the grounds that fighter jets would not constantly be deployed aboard them, and that the vessels could potentially be used for relief and medical-aid missions in the event of disasters.

But it seems undeniable that the planned upgrade would give the MSDF the capability to engage in missions that extend beyond the nation’s conventional defense posture.

Similarly, the planned purchase of U.S.-developed long-range cruise missiles, which can be launched from beyond the range of enemy fire, will give the SDF the capability to strike enemy bases overseas for the purpose of destroying their missile launchers.

Nonetheless, the government does not specify the acquisition of such a capability in either the defense guidelines or the midterm spending program. Since the 1950s, the government has explained that striking an enemy base with the minimum necessary force when there is a pressing danger of a missile attack against Japan and there is no other means to prevent the attack will fall within the realm of self-defense and, therefore, is allowed under the Constitution.

As security concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development have intensified over the past two years, lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have urged the prime minister to consider obtaining the capability to strike enemy bases abroad. Still, the government maintains that the introduction of long-range cruise missiles is not intended as a capability to strike enemy bases. For that capability, Japan says it will continue to rely on its ally, the U.S.

Effectively obtaining such capabilities but continuing to deny their existence will only serve to raise suspicions about the nation’s defense posture. The government needs to give clear and convincing explanations about its intentions behind their deployment.