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‘Sticker Shock’ Awaits Defense Minister Kishi on Promised Spending

Our estimate is, Japan needs at least $91 billion USD in extra spending to get its defense where it needs to be. By the way, China spends at least 10 times more.

Grant Newsham

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Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force's JS Izumo P/N 183 helicopter carrier navigates in the South China Sea on Wednesday, June 21 2017. Photographer: Kengo Matsumoto from JSDF's helicopter

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In an interview with Asia Nikkei on Wednesday, May 19, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said, “We will properly allocate the funding we need to protect our nation” without considering outlays in relation to GDP. 

He also said “[Japan] must increase our defense capabilities at a radically different pace than in the past,” given the increasingly dangerous regional security environment.

This suggests that tight-fisted Japan will spend whatever it takes to get its defense in shape, and will not be bound by the informal “1% of GDP” limit that it has followed for many years.

But how much will Japan actually need to spend to reach a level that might be considered “adequate”?

Let’s think it through:

Japan currently spends over $51 billion USD a year on defense.

This might sound like a lot, and Japanese officials often boast that this is the ninth straight year Japan’s defense budget has increased. But before this run of nine straight increases, Japan had cut defense spending every year for a decade.

So, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s eight years and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s one year, Japanese defense spending was climbing out of a “trough” – and has increased by maybe a little over 15%.  Compared with the defense budget nearly two decades ago, this isn’t much at all.

And the threats facing Japan (and the United States) these days in Asia have gone up by a lot more than 15%.

China is executing the biggest and fastest military buildup of any military since World War II (and maybe in history). The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) already presents Japanese (and U.S.) forces with a serious challenge.  

Beijing claims Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which it insists are Chinese, and its naval and air forces have been turning up in the area with distressing frequency and in bigger numbers. China also claims all of Japan’s Ryukyu island chain.

RELATED: Provocations in the Senkakus Show How China Plans to Expand Maritime Control Post-Pandemic

Seoul also has longstanding territorial and historical grievances against Tokyo. And North Korea loathes Japan.

Looking north, Japan has territorial issues with Russia.

Stating the obvious, if the Americans weren’t around, things would be grim indeed for Tokyo.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi

What Improvements Cost

Now, suppose Japan wants to improve its military, while also reducing its pathological dependence on U.S. military might.

Let’s do some math:

Personnel

Japan currently spends about $51 billion USD on defense annually.  About 40% of the budget goes to personnel costs. That’s about $20 billion USD.

The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) need to expand troop strength by perhaps a third to take over missions currently under-resourced or for which they are “counting on the Americans.” The Japanese Navy, in particular, is just too small (about 50,000 sailors).

So, add roughly $7 billion USD a year in additional personnel costs.

Recruitment Targets

A related problem: The JSDF has not met recruitment targets for years. (It misses these targets by about 25% a year.) To attract and retain manpower, Japan must spend more to improve salaries, housing, and terms of service to out-compete the private sector. 

Let’s assume an extra $5 billion USD a year.

Military Reserve

To offset recruiting challenges, JSDF could create an effective military reserve system — say, $1 billion USD in costs initially.  

RELATED: 70 Years On, Give Japan’s Self Defense Force the Recognition It Deserves

Hardware

Next, let’s consider extra hardware to cover the areas surrounding Japan and farther afield.

Japan’s Navy

The Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) will need another half dozen submarines at about $1 billion USD each. That’s $6 billion USD. 

And more surface ships will be needed. Start with a dozen new destroyers at about $500 million USD each — another $6 billion USD for all of them.

Japan’s navy will also need enough replenishment ships so the MSDF can patrol farther from Japan — as the U.S. Navy does on Japan’s behalf. Let’s buy three, at $400 million USD each. That’s $1.2 billion USD.

To add heft to the MSDF’s regional presence, it needs four more “helicopter destroyers” that can mount F-35B stealth fighters. You need three ships to have one operational. While one is at sea, one is being repaired, and another is training to return to sea. At a cool billion a shot, that’s another $4 billion USD.

As China’s aircraft carriers become fully operational, Japan just might need to buy full-fledged assets of its own — not jury-rigged “helicopter destroyers.” The real thing is expensive — say, $5 billion USD each. Let’s buy two. Total: $10 billion USD.

RELATED: China’s Growing Military Power is a Reminder to Japan of the Danger of War

Japan will also need more naval patrol and anti-submarine aircraft.  That will be another dozen P-1’s at $150 million USD a pop. Total: $1.8 billion USD.

The MSDF should have another naval base or two somewhere in Japan to spread assets so as not to be an easy missile target. Construction isn’t cheap in Japan, but let’s suppose it can just modify existing civilian port facilities. Total: $5 billion USD.

A decent amphibious training area in Japan is also needed. Total:  $1 billion USD (assuming Japan’s construction industry gives the government a hefty discount.)

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Air, Missiles, Space, Cyber

The Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) will need a few dozen F35s at about $100 million USD each. Total: $3.6 billion USD.

It will also need refueling aircraft to extend the range of “short-legged” F35s. That’s six refuellers at $150 million each. Total: $.9 billion USD.

And maybe there will be a need for strategic bombers? Tokyo would rather not think about that, so we won’t, either.

Expanding Japan’s missile defense system (to ease up demands on U.S. missile defense ships) will also cost plenty.

RELATED: Japan in Naval Power, Would Establish Superiority in a Senkakus Showdown

Aegis destroyers: Six at $1.8 billion USD each for a total of $10.8 billion USD. Two Aegis “afloat” systems — to replace the Aegis “ashore” systems that were cancelled in 2020, allegedly to save money. Two “afloat” systems: $2 billion USD each, so $4 billion USD.  (Aegis “ashore” was half that price.)  

Additional Patriot and THAAD anti-missile batteries: $2 billion USD.

And Japan will need an offensive missile capability rather than just hoping to swat away incoming missiles. How many? A lot. But let’s see what $5 billion USD gets us.

To make all this work, Japan will need sensor and satellite surveillance networks. That will start at a hefty $10 billion USD.

And as China moves further into space, Japan will need to protect its space resources and interests. Price? $3 billion USD for starters. 

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A proper cyber and electromagnetic capability for the JSDF (assuming qualified personnel can be found)? Let’s start with $2 billion USD.

If the U.S. nuclear umbrella just doesn’t seem believable enough, Japan will have to consider the ultimate deterrent. A source claims it would only take six months for Japan to weaponize fissile materials, but it is an expensive process. Rough estimate: $2 billion USD.

RELATED: Concern as Chinese, Foreigners Buy 700 Properties Around Japan’s Defense Sites

And the Final Price:

This comes, so far, to the north of $91 billion USD in extra spending to get Japan’s defense where it needs to be, while also breaking the unhealthy over-dependence on the U.S. military. And don’t forget the long-term costs of operating, maintaining, and replacing equipment and hardware, and attracting and retaining personnel (and their families).

The JSDF of course can’t absorb an extra $91 billion straightaway. But on top of the current $51 billion USD defense budget, Japan’s total defense spending should grow over the next five to seven years to upwards of $100 billion USD a year — and continue in that range for the foreseeable future.

Defense Minister Kishi may not have done the math before his recent interview.  

But freedom doesn’t come cheap, and Tokyo shouldn’t expect the Americans to take care of things as they have for decades. That was a good deal for Tokyo, but no good deal lasts forever.

Of course, Japan can’t just write a massive check and consider it “problem solved.” But Tokyo does need to understand the scale of the requirement if it is serious about defending the nation. And keep in mind that increased spending alone does not automatically translate into actual military capability. That is another matter and requires thought and effort of a different sort.

Is Japan’s ruling class serious? We’ll see soon enough.

By the way, how much does the People’s Republic of China spend on defense? A rough figure: at least 10 times more than Japan, and probably more than that. 

Beijing views defense spending differently than do Japan and the U.S. Put simply, China’s leaders are not bound by a legislature and will spend whatever amount it takes, over as many years as needed, to build a military that can defeat the United States. Do that and, from China’s vantage point, Japan will be easy enough to deal with.

RELATED: Tokyo’s China Problem: Ignore It or Deal With It?

Author: Grant Newsham

Find other articles by the author at this link on JAPAN Forward.

Grant Newsham is a retired United States Marine Officer and a former U.S. diplomat with many years’ experience in Japan. He was the first US Marine liaison officer to the Japan Ground Self Defense force and was instrumental in promoting the JSDF’s initial moves towards an amphibious capability.