Japan shrugs off its pacifist outlook to prepare for future conflict

As regional tensions bite, Japan is focusing on international defence partnerships and eyeing growth in defence exports.

Atul Chandra
15 August 2023

Vice Admiral Imayoshi Shinichi, Director General Naval Systems of Japan’s Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA)


Japan is grappling with the need to increase its defence spending to cater for emerging threats, from North Korea, China and Russia, whose moves are proving to be increasingly difficult to assess. All three Communist-led states boast significant arsenals of long-range missiles, which pose a direct threat to Japan.

Japan has traditionally limited its military capabilities to self-defence requirements since the Second World War and had capped military spending at 1% of GDP. However, heightened regional tensions resulted in Japan’s Self Defence Forces (JSDF) 2023 defence budget surging to approximately $52 billion, nearing 1.5% of  GDP. 

Japan’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), published in December 2022, along with a new National Defense Strategy, calls for defence spending as a percentage of GDP to increase to 2% by 2027. Even for heavily industrialised Japan, which is the world’s third-largest economy, the cost of modernising its military and inducting cutting-edge equipment is proving onerous.

Japan is now making two key shifts away from its past military procurement to cater for the need to ensure that its forces retain their technological edge over their adversaries on the future battlefield. The first is a greater reliance on partnerships related to the development of new military platforms, apart from its traditional reliance on the US, and the other is an increased focus on the export of Japan’s indigenously developed defence equipment.

Confronted with an increasingly volatile neighbourhood, it is clear that Japan is shrugging off its pacifist outlook to prepare for future conflict. Its partnership with the UK and Italy for the Global Combat Air programme, first announced in December 2022, is the centrepiece of its defence modernisation efforts.

Vice Admiral Imayoshi Shinichi, Director General Naval Systems at Japan’s Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA) says, there are many potential projects underway, all of which are still under negotiations and deliberation. ATLA is also undertaking a feasibility study for mine countermeasure technological activities with France and cooperative research with India on the Visual SLAM-based GNSS Augmentation Technology for Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) / Robotics.  

BAE Systems, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and Leonardo are now working closely together to finalise a joint industrial arrangement on the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP). GCAP is a multinational initiative led by the United Kingdom, Japan, and Italy to develop a sixth-generation stealth fighter. The Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) is pushing to have this next-generation combat aircraft in service by 2035 and Rolls-Royce, IHI Corporation (earlier known as Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries) and Avio Aero are setting out the terms to jointly design, manufacture and test a full-scale future combat engine demonstrator.

Mitsubishi Electric (Japan) & Leonardo UK; and Leonardo and Elettronica (Italy) have agreed to form a special domain to develop advanced on-board electronics and advanced self-protection capabilities for the future GCAP aircraft, called the Integrated Sensing and Non-Kinetic Effects & Integrated Communications System (ISANKE & ICS).

Francis St-Louis, associate director, of sales & business development (Asia), Mission Systems at Collins Aerospace says Collins Aerospace is currently evaluating and qualifying opportunities to position its advanced, battle-proven solutions and new technologies as part of the GCAP program. Collins was selected to provide actuation systems for Team Tempest, which is the UK-specific version of GCAP. Under a contract with BAE Systems, Collins will develop a number of demonstration components as part of continuing technology de-risking work on the programme.

A UK-Japan government-to-government cooperation programme is also underway for the development of a Joint New Air-to-Air Missile (JNAAM) for the JASDF, based on MBDA’s Meteor long-range Beyond Visual Range Air-To-Air Missile (BVRAAM).  Mitsubishi Electric Company (MELCO) is working with MBDA to integrate its MELCO Active Electronically Steered Array (AESA) seeker onto the Meteor BVRAAM. An MBDA spokesperson says the company’s aspiration is to work with Japanese industry to co-develop effectors of the future for platforms that would service the needs of Europe, Japan and the wider export market. MBDA is currently working with BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin to integrate the Meteor missile onto the F-35. MBDA’s aspirations are wider than GCAP and its effectors, with the company aiming to emerge as Japan’s industrial partner of choice in the effector domain across all land, sea and air platforms servicing the needs of Japan’s Self Defence Forces.


The next-generation fighter that will result from GCAP. (Image credit: BAE Systems)



Are defence exports, a path forward for Japan?

Despite Japanese industry’s obvious Industrial and technical excellence, its defence industry is confronted with limited orders for high-tech defence equipment produced in small quantities, which makes them unaffordable on the export market. The low production volumes have forced an increasing number of Japanese firms to exit their defence businesses altogether or cut back on them. ATLA is now looking to increase defence exports, with the intention to reduce procurement and operating costs for the Japanese self-defence forces.

Shinichi said that the Japanese government will promote the transfer of defence equipment to other countries and that it had already decided to set up a new fund to support Japanese private companies with the customisation costs required in order for them to make adjustments to existing defence equipment. “This will help cater to the special requests and requirements of various countries and will definitely significantly contribute to a cost reduction in the future of Japanese defence equipment offered for export,” Shinichi added.

ATLA is key to promoting the Japanese government’s new policies to facilitate active transfer of Japanese defence equipment and continue to promote it. “ATLA's main role is to promote and deepen understanding of the potential user countries of Japan's technological and research and development capabilities and also the capability in terms of maintenance.,” says Shinichi. “So our role is to make that first step on a Government-to-Government (G2G) basis so that we can feed that into the next level.”

While the price of Japanese defence equipment is high, the price tag is commensurate with high quality and performance. “So, that will remain the same, but we will make more effort to continue to improve all these features and advantages of the Japanese defence equipment,” says Shinichi. “What we want to do now is to promote joint R&D activities with our partner countries in parallel with the existing approach.” Japan is also keen to promote its capabilities with regard to equipment for humanitarian activities and disaster relief. “We have a wide range of equipment and expertise in this area and have already transferred quite a lot of equipment to our partners and will continue to increase this,” Shinichi stressed.

The Philippines is emerging as an important customer of Japanese defence equipment. The Philippine government and Japan entered into a ‘Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology’ agreement in 2016. In March 2018, three more Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) TC-90 trainer aircraft were transferred to the Philippine Navy, adding to two TC-90s delivered in 2017. The Beechcraft King Air 90 twin-engine turboprop was designated TC-90 in JMSDF service. The Philippines announced a G2G procurement for air surveillance radars with Japan in August 2020. Deliveries began in 2022 and Mitsubishi Electric will supply a total of four air surveillance radar systems to the Philippines. The pre-delivery inspection of the first fixed radar system was completed by the Philippine Air Force in September 2022. The radars are being supplied by Mitsubishi Electric as part of a package worth $103 million, which includes three fixed long-range air surveillance radars, each with building facilities and one mobile air surveillance radar.

Subaru is also eyeing export orders for its UH-2 (Utility Helicopter), which is now in service with the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force (JGSDF). Delivery of the first batch of six UH-2s to the JGSDF was completed in January. At the Langkawi International Maritime Airshow (LIMA) in May, Sho Nakajima, assistant manager, marketing sales, Defence Helicopter Programmes Section at Subaru, said the airframe was looking to export the UH-2 to overseas markets. Nakajima said Subaru Corporation had received interest in the UH-2 from some countries, and that the air framer was also keen to export the civil variant of the helicopter, the Subaru Bell 412E EPX. Nakajima said the UH-2 demonstrated very high reliability and serviceability rates in service along with low service costs. The UH-2 is will have a 20-year production run, with a total of 150 on order for the JGSDF. Subaru delivered the first UH-2 to the JGSDF in June 2022.