China’s continued assertiveness in the South China Sea has prompted a resurgence in Japan’s assertiveness in the region. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been a driving force in shaking off the post-Second World War stigma to position itself as a major regional player with a credible multi-domain power projection force.
Japan has closely followed the modernisation of the Chinese armed forces and raised concerns about the nation’s defence capabilities. The Japanese government has responded with a period of unprecedented defence budgets as the pre-war power seeks to shake off the chains of the pacifist constitution enforced upon it by the US, UK, Australia and other allies following the end of the war in the Pacific.
However, Japan's geo-strategic realities have rapidly evolved since the end of the Cold War, when the US could effectively guarantee the security of the island nation.
Growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and modernisation efforts resulting in the fielding of key power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region, is serving to shake Japan's confidence.
Accordingly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly earmarked increased funding for the nation's defence budget, expanding the capabilities of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) with plans to repeal the post-Second World War constitutional limitations and reinstate a power projection focused force structure and doctrine to be supported by Japan's industrial capability to modernise and equip itself in the face of growing regional instability and tensions.
Both the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) play critical roles in the shifting focus of the Japanese government and its ambitions in the region – in particular the repeal of Article 9 will see both forces shift from a purely 'defensive' focused force towards a nation with an indigenous power projection capability.
A return for Japanese naval aviation and marines
Japan's history of offensive operations during World War II has prevented the JMSDF from operating conventional, catapult assisted launching aircraft carriers or short take-off, vertical landing large deck, amphibious warfare ships as both are considered to be offensive weapons systems – capable of supporting power projection doctrines and 'hard power' policies.
As part of Abe's commitment toward shifting the paradigm following continued Chinese naval build up – particularly the growing capabilities of China's aircraft carrier and amphibious warfare ship fleets, Japan has initiated a range of modernisation and structural refits for the Izumo Class vessels to develop small aircraft carriers capable of supporting airwings of 28 rotary-wing aircraft, with capacity for approximately 10 'B' variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines.
The smaller Hyuga Class vessels, weighing in at 19,000 tonnes, are capable of supporting an airwing of 18 rotary-wing aircraft, with space for amphibious units and supporting equipment. Additionally, it is speculated that like their larger Izumo Class cousins, the Hyuga and sister Ise can be modified to accommodate the F-35B.
Supporting this, Abe's government plans to operate a fleet of approximately 147 fifth-generation aircraft, including 42 'B' variant, short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) F-35 aircraft, in similar manners to American amphibious warfare ships and the UK's Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. The introduction of these capabilities will directly support Japan's long-range maritime strike, air interdiction and fleet aviation capabilities, which are critical to defending Japanese territorial and economic interests in Indo-Pacific Asia.
These vessels, in conjunction with smaller Osumi Class transports will also play host to the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force's (JGSDF) 'Amphibious Rapid Deployment' brigade – a specially developed amphibious unit similar to US Marine Expeditionary Units designed to defend Japanese interests in the South China Sea, namely the Senkaku Islands, which have served as a flash point between the two nations.
Developing a next-gen air superiority capability
Fifth-generation fighter aircraft represent the pinnacle of modern fighter technology. Incorporating all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance air frames, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities for commanders.
Both Russia and China have pursued the development of their own fifth-generation aircraft with the Su-57, and J-20 and FC-31, respectively, being brought to market to challenge the US and allied F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It is the rapid development of China's own fifth-generation capabilities, combined with continuing tensions on the Korean peninsula, which initially encouraged Japan to pursue the export of the Raptor despite an export ban implemented by the US Congress.
In response, Japan initiated the X-2 Shinshin program to develop a locally designed and manufactured fifth-generation, air superiority fighter to serve as the F-3 replacement, which would draw on the expertise of US aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, competing for the lucrative deal to provide Japan with a counter to the increasingly capable Chinese developed fifth-generation fighter and bomber aircraft fleets.
While the costs involved and the rapid evolution of technology is leaving fifth-generation platforms obsolete – Japan has pivoted its efforts to maintain a 147 strong fleet of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with research and development programs recently refocused on developing a Japanese equivalent to the US sixth-generation Penetrating Counter Air and Next Generation Air Dominance air frames to operate in conjunction with the JSF.
These air power capabilities will also be supported by a range of advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drones – namely the Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk (a variant of Australia's MQ-4C Triton ISR drones) – and specialised, Japanese airborne early warning, command and control squadrons centred on Japan's fleet of E-2D Hawkeye aircraft, which support the introduction of broader multi-domain power projection capabilities.
These networks will evolve to serve a similar distributed lethality network to Australia's 'joint force' capabilities, which combines an advanced suite of sensors including the E-7A Wedgetail, P-8A Poseidon and MQ-4C Triton aircraft with 'shooters' in the F-35A, EA-18G Growlers, Navy's Hobart and Hunter Class vessels, and Army's systems of advanced ground-based long-range fire systems, air support, armour and artillery systems
Developing complementary force structures
The Australia-Japan relationship is the nation's closest and most mature in Asia and is underpinned by the strategic, economic, political and legal interests of both countries. The countries work closely in strategic alliance with the US, and lead in critical regional partnerships with countries such as India and the Republic of Korea.
Australia and Japan regularly participate in joint defence exercises and frequently consult on regional security issues, such as the nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches undertaken by North Korea.
The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation (JDSC) signed in 2007 provides a foundation for wide-ranging co-operation on security issues for both countries, including law enforcement, border security, counter terrorism, disarmament and counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The JDSC also established the regular 2+2 talks between the respective foreign and defence ministers.
Like Australia, Japan is dependent upon unrestricted access to critical sea lines-of-communication (SLOC), which require robust naval and air power capabilities – these developments and the strategic reorientation provides avenues for the two nations to develop similar, complementary force structures to ensure unhindered access to Indo-Pacific Asia's SLOC.