Japan’s Play for Today: Too Much? Just Right? Or Never Enough?


The United States — and its allies — cannot continue in their security endeavors in the way they have heretofore. Business as usual will not lead to success. My RAND colleagues and I published these findings in Inflection Point, which warned that in today’s dynamic security environment, in which the capabilities of U.S. adversaries are changing and the nature of warfare is rapidly evolving, policymakers risk the nation’s security if they fail to understand and better prepare for future challenges.

One of the countries in our study — and an increasingly critical U.S. ally — was Japan. Like the United States, Japan needs to look critically at its defense strategy, capabilities, and posture or risk facing considerable threats in its future. The Japanese government is already in the midst of this critical reassessment. In December 2022, the Kishida Fumio administration released three landmark strategic documents: the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Defense Buildup Plan. Collectively, these represent change for Japan and its security policies. One of the most important aspects was the announcement that Tokyo would increase defense spending by nearly 60 percent over five years. 



Christopher Johnstone and I wrote for War on the Rocks in January that these changes are very significant, but clear prioritization for how these resources will be used will be critical for success. With Japan’s second year defense budget request published in August, analysts can analyze Japan’s efforts to ask whether it is on the right track. I believe that Japan is making important progress, but possible challenges are expected in key areas where more — or different — lines of effort are needed. 

Defense Priorities

August’s budget request (thus far only published in Japanese) represents the second year of Japan’s defense efforts outlined in December. The expenditures in this year’s budget, which totaled 6.6 trillion yen (about $50 billion, an increase of 27.4 percent over the previous year), represented a solid start to addressing some key vulnerabilities and gaps in Japan’s defense structure. This included efforts that are continued in this year’s budget request, providing insight into Japan’s commitment to these efforts as well as a better understanding of where it is heading. Like this year’s current budget, the defense budget request for next year is compartmentalized into seven main lines of effort and includes some notable items that continue, or build on, the current defense budget.

Standoff defense capabilities: This includes the acquisition of advanced Type-12 missiles, Joint Strike Missiles for Japan’s F-35A, and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles; development of hypersonic missiles and hypervelocity projectiles; and the installation of Tomahawk launching capabilities aboard Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in preparation for the introduction of Tomahawk missiles. 

Integrated air and missile defense capabilities: In addition to critical upgrades to the automatic warning and control network called Japan Aerospace Defense Ground Environment, this category includes continued upgrades to the different variants of the Self-Defense Force’s fixed position system radar arrays; the joint U.S.-Japanese development of a glide phase interceptor; and the construction of two Aegis system-equipped vessels, the solution to the 2020 cancellation of Japan’s Aegis Ashore system.

Unmanned defense capabilities: The budget includes specific line items for the acquisition and study/development of unmanned capabilities in all domains except ground platforms, which were in this year’s budget. This includes unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned surface vessels, and unmanned underwater vessels. The intention, per the request, appears to be spread across several mission sets: intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance, mine-clearing, combat support, targeting, and transportation.

Cross-domain operation capabilities: Notable efforts include the strengthening of space domain awareness; acquisition of a satellite constellation to improve detection and tracking of hypersonic glide vehicles; strengthening cyber defenses and protection of information systems; and the acquisition and/or development of improvements in the Self-Defense Force’s communications and radar jamming capabilities, electronic protection capabilities (i.e. upgrades to F-15s), and enhanced electronic warfare support capabilities (i.e. acquire one RC-2 aircraft). These efforts are accompanied by additions to traditional domains of ground, sea, and air, such as 19 Type 16 maneuver combat vehicles, 16 Type 19 155 mm wheeled self-propelled howitzers, three P-1 aircraft, 15 F-35A/B jets, and the construction of two new multi-mission stealth frigates and one new supply ship. 

Command-and-control and intelligence-related functions: The main area, detailed in a separate part of the document, is the creation of a Permanent Joint Headquarters. Other notable efforts include capabilities to strengthen intelligence/analysis functions and respond to information warfare, as well as to expand the number of defense attaches overseas.

Mobile deployment capabilities and civil protection: The focus is heavily on lift, such as the creation of a Marine Transport Group, acquisition of three watercraft and 33 helicopters, and funding private-sector maritime transport capacity projects. 

Sustainability and resiliency: This broad array of initiatives includes securing other types of munitions not included in the standoff missile category, like the AIM-120 air-to-air missile or ASM-3A air-to-ship missile; dedicating resources to equipment maintenance; putting command units underground to protect against electromagnetic pulse attacks; and reinforcing facilities and maintenance of munition depots.

Strengths and Challenges

Taken as a whole, Japan’s intentions for next year appear to be a good news story, building upon the efforts laid out in the current defense budget. First, Japan is investing in diverse capabilities across domains. Not only are there new platforms or upgrades to existing platforms in the Self-Defense Force’s traditional domains, but a concerted effort to bolster its capabilities in the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains, continuing efforts that Japan has made over the past five years. Collectively, to the extent that it can adequately train in areas that are often constrained out of concerns with obtaining local consent, the Self-Defense Forces continue to become a more lethal force capable of fighting in what is likely to be a contested air and maritime conflict as well as in new domains. 

Second, Japan’s push into standoff capabilities complicates things for an adversary wishing to strike Japan. The government’s weighing of the merits of developing such a capability goes back decades in Diet interpellations, but its concrete moves toward acquiring the actual capability are new and openly welcomed by the United States. And while total planned stockpiles are understandably not in the public domain, the focus on increasing both the types and the amounts of munitions — particularly as a first line of effort — signals the Japanese government’s seriousness about missiles. 

Third, Japan’s focus on command-and-control improvements, as well as efforts to improve sustainability and resiliency, are areas that have long suffered from neglect. Some of the areas Japan is looking to invest in will make it more difficult for an adversary to take the Self-Defense Forces out of a fight early in a campaign. Similarly, the establishment of a Permanent Joint Headquarters holds the promise of streamlining operational command to the extent that component stovepipes can be mitigated. If done, it could thereby contribute to better jointness among Japan’s three defense services as well as better interoperability with the United States as that headquarters learns to work closely with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Finally, Japan’s interest in unmanned assets has the potential to expand problem sets for an adversary that, depending on the final scale of Japan’s unmanned arsenal, could force an adversary to stretch its critical platforms and munitions in its prosecution of Self-Defense Forces targets. 

In all these areas, Japan deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the focus on moving forward on areas that have long suffered in stagnation. 

At the same time, now that we can see the details for the second year of funding, there are areas that could prove to be insufficiently funded for Japan’s defense needs if not addressed in future defense budgets. Despite the overall jump in defense spending and increased focus on production and acquisition, the budget allocations for standoff defense capabilities, unmanned capabilities, and initiatives in space and cyber actually decrease in the new budget request. While it is unfair to judge the entirety of Japan’s defense efforts based on the first two years of proposed spending, these cuts are curious based on stated intentions. 

Second, despite the focus on integrated air and missile defense and sustainability and resiliency, there appears to be no mention of increasing the number of hardened fighter shelters nor any mention of provisioning fuel bladders or expeditionary shelters. Ensuring that the Self-Defense Forces can stay in the fight past the first volley will require absorbing the first hit and being able to flexibly disperse to secure shelters or austere locations with prepositioned fuel and supplies. 

Similarly, while lift capabilities are getting attention in the budget request, there is no focus on heavy lift capabilities in either the air or sea domains (last year included two landing craft utility ships and two C-2 transport aircraft). Instead, the budget request is for small lift platforms and a reliance on civilian ships. In a conflict where all Self-Defense Forces lift assets will experience attrition and civilian ships will not sail to active combat zones, the need to steadily resupply forces on outlying islands with large-scale munitions and materiel, troops, and oversized equipment, as well as help evacuate citizens from islands close to the conflict, will place a heavy strain on the Self-Defense Forces’ current fixed-wing airlift (C-130 and C-2) and three sealift assets (i.e., the Ōsumi class). 

Finally, with standoff defense capabilities, which have garnered a lot of popular attention, the focus on increasing its stockpiles with diverse systems is a positive development. But when adversaries have fairly robust missile defense systems and hundreds of bases in which to disperse, Japan’s missile endeavors meant to deter adversaries will either require an extremely large number of missiles or a larger stockpile of missiles that can fly faster and stealthier than envisaged under its current plans. 

There are also some items in the Ministry of Defense’s budget request that are questionable from the standpoint of bandwidth and resources. Start with standoff missile capabilities. Although the budget request never explicitly says that Japan wants an independent kill chain, like the current budget, the document includes graphics of a satellite constellation being used for detecting and targeting purposes. This suggests that Japan may be seeking to acquire an independent kill chain. If true, this promises to drain a lot of resources that could otherwise be dedicated to stockpiling and upgrading munition depots. Another item, tucked deep in the document, is an effort to establish a new research facility akin to America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or Defense Innovation Unit to strengthen Japan’s ability to create defense innovations and groundbreaking equipment. While the intention is understandable, at a time when the establishment of a Permanent Joint Headquarters is likely to absorb a lot of attention and resources — not to mention finite manpower — moving to establish a new organization to research cutting-edge technology may strain Japan’s efforts elsewhere. This is particularly the case when considering that Japan’s defense industries may not have the capacity to meet what is demanded of them. 

Finally, the decision to procure two Aegis system-equipped vessels may make political sense, but operationally may not be the best use of finite resources. Two ships are likely not enough to provide the additional ballistic missile defense coverage that Japan sought after canceling the Aegis Ashore option. This is because typical naval operational practices see one ship in deployment while a second one is in maintenance and a third one is exercising or getting ready to relieve the first. Similarly, bad weather on the high seas may limit the effectiveness of the ships. Manpower shortages in the Maritime Self-Defense Force may also impact any single ship’s readiness.  

One final observation about the budget request has to do with several items that appear overly ambitious. Consider first the focus on unmanned assets. While Japan’s move into unmanned assets is a positive development, it is arguably a rapid one, considering that the legal infrastructure for unmanned aerial vehicles was not put into place until 2015. Still, if runway-independent platforms can make use of Japan’s 6,000-plus islands, the rate at which the Ministry of Defense is looking to build its unmanned fleet may be unrealistic. Currently, Japan operates three Global Hawks for overland intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Acquiring these took years. The budget request contains 47 unmanned aerial vehicles while the unmanned underwater vessels and unmanned surface vessels are being studied. This suggests that Japan is looking to drastically increase the number of unmanned platforms to operate in all domains. Regardless of whether these platforms are intended to deliver weapons, in addition to the time it will take to develop/procure/deploy them, creating the concepts and doctrines necessary to integrate these assets into the existing force is likely to take years. Based on how long it took to introduce the three Global Hawks (roughly eight years), it is unclear how quickly the Self-Defense Forces can move forward with absorbing the scale set out in the budget.

A similar situation is at work in the space and cyber plans. While acquiring space domain awareness capabilities may be realistically possible in the near term, deploying an entire satellite constellation for the purpose of hypersonic glide vehicle detection and tracking seems to be dramatic jump from where Japan is today. After all, despite announcing the authorization to develop the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System in 2002, it was not fully operational until 2018. Likewise, given ongoing media reports about information security concerns and breaches, establishing things like a cloud computing system to integrate and standardize the systems of the Self-Defense Forces to enable unified cyber security measures may be more challenging than recognized. Finally, the budget request includes utilizing artificial intelligence for various measures, including responses to information warfare, information collection and analysis functions, and even for use for unmanned aircraft working with manned aircraft in combat support roles. While the use of artificial intelligence is steadily increasing, it is unlikely that Japan will be able to integrate it into its defense network on such an extensive scale within a few years.

Defense Industrial Base Concerns

Layered on top of this, and underexamined, is the overarching question of whether Japan’s defense industries have the capacity to do all this. The sharp decline of market participants in Japan over the past two decades, the high cost of business, and limited options for exporting abroad have collectively challenged the industry’s growth. While Japan is a robust Foreign Military Sales purchaser, I would assume the government expects Japanese companies are going to be major players in implementing the defense budget to prevent further hollowing-out. But, as a Foreign Policy article has argued, defense-related sales in Japan account for only 4 percent of the total sales of major Japanese manufacturers and, in 2020, defense-related procurement from domestic manufacturers made up less than 1 percent of Japan’s total industrial production value. When we compare these facts with the vast scale of what the Ministry of Defense wants, it is hard to not ask whether the existing industrial base is up to the task. After all, not only does Japan lack a national prime contractor, Japan’s major private defense providers, such as Mitsubishi or Kawasaki, appear reluctant to change their business models to devote more of their existing capacity to defense production. 

And what about the capability? Arguably there are several items in the budget that Japan’s defense industry has never demonstrated an ability to do before, such as setting up an innovation organization or integrating artificial intelligence into defense programs to be used for defense operations. Just recently Japan gave up on developing an indigenously built next-generation fighter in favor of an international partnership. When looking at the more high-tech items in the budget request, is there a risk that the Ministry of Defense could be devoting money to things industry cannot accomplish?

Given questions about both capacity and capability, Japan’s government may be confronted with a choice: rely on domestic industry, which has limited capacity and may struggle to develop the high-tech capabilities that are sought; or rely on Foreign Military Sales and other foreign purchases or partnerships to obtain the high-end capabilities but, due to the yen’s declining value, drive up costs and likely dilute the end results of Japan’s desired defense buildup.


Collectively, let me end with two basic conclusions. First, Japan’s efforts deserve much credit. As noted above, the government is pushing ahead on a broad array of initiatives meant to strengthen the Self-Defense Forces’ deterrent power across multiple domains. Importantly, this was done on Tokyo’s own initiative. If successful, it promises to result in much more lethal and technologically advanced Self-Defense Forces. At the same time, and my second point, as positive as this is, we need to temper our expectations. Japan is attempting to do a lot of very impressive things with new technologies and capabilities that it either does not field or, in some instances, do not yet exist. There are bound to be limits in manpower, resources, capacity, or capabilities that will ultimately place limits on what the end point of Japan’s buildup ultimately looks like. 



Jeffrey Hornung is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor in the Asian Studies program at Georgetown University.

Image: Angelique Perez, U.S. Air Force