Tokyo maintains a steady course on military spending
Tokyo’s latest defence procurements may not be expansionist but they do keep pace with Beijing’s blue-water capabilities, analysts say
Japan is quietly developing an array of "formidable" defensive and offensive military capabilities within easy reach of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, according to an analysis by Jane's Defence Weekly.
In its latest issue, the magazine reports that while much has been made of China's efforts to develop a blue-water capability for its naval forces - which includes the completion of its first aircraft carrier, plans for two nuclear-powered carriers and the ramping up of construction of nuclear submarines - there have also been significant advances in Japan's military resources.
As recently as October of last year, Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Forces were described as a cold war navy designed mainly to fill holes in the coverage provided by the US Navy.
In an interview with the magazine, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of staff of the MSDF, emphasised efforts to improve Japan's mine-sweeping capabilities; procure a 5,000-tonne anti-submarine destroyer and two long-range maritime patrol aircraft; and significantly upgrade the navy's command, communications and intelligence-gathering systems.
"So far, so low key: no one could accuse the JMSDF of an expansionist agenda - just a steady ramping up of the 'defensive-minded' capabilities at which it already excels," Jane's said. But there was a more "proactive stance" in some of Tokyo's most recent purchases and its military drills, it added.
Most glaring of these additions are two "22DDH" helicopter carriers, the first of which is scheduled to be operational in 2015. At just under 250 metres with a displacement of 27,000 tonnes, these vessels are significantly larger than the 19,000-tonne, 197-metre Hyuga-class helicopter carriers that are now Japan's biggest warships.
Japan has been careful not to classify any of these vessels as aircraft carriers, which are considered part of an offensive force. To describe them as such would raise the hackles of its neighbours, in particular China.
But Jane's points out that the 22DDH vessels "could quite easily double up as the kind of light aircraft carrier that the US Marine Corps uses for expeditionary operations".
Although designated for helicopters, the vessels would also be capable of launching jets capable of vertical take-offs and landings.
Training also suggests that the Japanese military is trying to expand its capabilities.
The navy has had the ability to land tanks and infantry on a beachhead since the introduction of its Oosumi-class landing ships in the late 1990s, but until recently had resisted the temptation to train for such assaults.
But Jane's highlighted how Japanese rangers had carried out landing exercises alongside US Marines in Guam late last year, describing the scenario as an operation to get ashore on "real islands". Subsequent drills have seen assault troops landed rapidly from helicopters.
Leaked Japanese defence planning documents indicate that Tokyo fears that Beijing's efforts to wrest control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is merely part of larger territorial ambitions. After seizing the five islands of the archipelago, Chinese forces, Japan suspects, may target the islands of Miyako and Ishigaki to allow the Chinese navy to break out of the First Island Chain that hem in its forces. Once that chain is broken, it would be far easier for Chinese vessels to sortie into the Pacific proper.
"It's important to note that these are just contingencies," the report noted. "Much would need to go wrong for China to decide that an invasion of Japanese territory was the best way to solve whatever crisis the two countries found themselves in."
Japanese warships and their crews have gained valuable experience by taking part in anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean, while air reconnaissance units have earned similar skills. F-15 interceptor jets have been re-deployed to Naha, the capital of Okinawa, and a new early-warning radar is to be built on Yonaguni, Japan's western-most inhabited island.
In all, the Jane's report suggests: "Tokyo's capabilities in that part of the world start looking quite formidable."