While most of the world is focused on Communist China’s massive naval and military buildup and expansionism in the South China Sea, few have noticed Japan’s quietly modernizing and growing defense forces. Still restricted by arguably outdated prohibitions from World War II, Japan has nonetheless steadily expanded its “Self Defense Force” (SDF) in recent years.
Spurred by the Chinese threat, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the SDF is now ramping up its capabilities even further. Increasingly, in a potential future conflict with China, Japan’s SDF could provide a winning complement to U.S and other allied forces.
Due to China’s rapidly growing military might, many analysts argue that the Asia-Pacific’s strategic balance may have already shifted in its favor, especially in the South China Sea. However, as the Asia Times (AT) notes:
…that calculus often overlooks Japan’s stealthier military progress and the support it could provide the US in any potential conflict scenario, including through new weapons’ systems designed specifically to counter China’s new-age military assets including aircraft carriers.
Within its mostly now self-imposed restrictions – and sometimes just barely within – Japan has quietly been modernizing and expanding its military capabilities, to include its first hypersonic glide missile, a new Marine amphibious force, and its first real aircraft carriers since WWII.
Japan’s new hypersonic anti-ship missile, specifically designed to threaten China’s modest new aircraft carriers in the East and South China Seas, has been called a “game changer” by the Japanese defense establishment, as quoted in AT. When deployed, Japan will be only the fourth country in the world – after the U.S., Russia, and China – to be armed with hypersonic missiles.
Also, according to Military-Today.com, since 2009 the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) has had two Hyūga-class “helicopter destroyers,” similar in size to older U.S. Iwo Jima class helicopter assault ships but avoiding the “assault” label. These vessels are primarily focused on anti-submarine warfare (ASW).
In 2015 the JMSDF added the larger Izumo-class “multi-purpose destroyers” to its fleet. The second Izumo-class ship – Kaga – was commissioned in 2017. While also labeled “destroyers,” these flattops are essentially larger helicopter carriers than the Hyūga-class.
In May 2019, President Donald Trump inspected Kaga during his visit to Japan – the first ever inspection of a Japanese warship by a U.S. president. At the event, reported Reuters, Trump expressed his support for Japan’s effort to become more active in Pacific defense and security, adding that “Kaga will help our nations defend against a range of complex threats in the region and far beyond.” (RELATED: China’s Aircraft Carrier ‘Information War’ Against U.S.)
Notably, in December 2018, reported The Diplomat, the Japanese Cabinet approved the conversion of both Izumo class ships into “aircraft carriers” capable of operating the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) F-35B stealth fighter aircraft as well as V-22 Tilt-Rotor Ospreys. This is a Japanese first since WWII and will greatly increase JMSDF integration with the warships and aircraft of the U.S. 7th Fleet.
To add to this expanding naval capability, as described in The National Interest (TNI) – in 2018 the JMSDF created its first “marine” force, the 2,100-man Amphibious Rapid Response Brigade (ARDB). Unlike U.S. Marines, Japanese “Marines” are not a separate service. This force was created under the Japanese ground force’s first unified command.
According to TNI, its mission, for now, is specific: “to rapidly recapture Japan’s southwestern islands should they be occupied by Chinese forces.” Maintaining control of these islands is key to US and Australian war plans, as the Japanese island belt effectively constrains Chinese naval operations.
While some argue this force is too small to be effective in a high-intensity conflict with China, TNI properly notes that:
…this overlooks that the amphibious brigade may deter smaller-scale “grey zone” actions possibly mounted by China’s paramilitary naval militias and coast guard. The ability to rapidly and credibly respond to island seizures could fundamentally alter the risk-reward calculus for such actions.
While both U.S. and Japanese forces need to be able to fight and win a full-scale, high-intensity conflict – deterrence in the “Grey Zone” with China is almost as important, and possibly more relevant, than preparing for all-out war. Meanwhile, across the entire range of possible conflict, Japan’s military is rising to the threat.