Japan will spend a record $50 billion for defense in 2020. That’s an increase of six percent over 2019. This is the eighth year in a row that Japan has increased defense spending and it is all about North Korea and China. North Korea openly complains about how unfair and unfriendly these increases are but they are a direct result of the increasing threat from North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea have annual defense spending that is more than a third larger than the annual GDP of North Korea. That is one reason North Korea spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to 1.2 percent for Japan and less than three percent for South Korea.
The disparity in military manpower is also unusual. While North Korea has a million men (and some women) in its military, South Korea had 500,000 and Japan 247,000. While North Korea depends on a large number of poorly equipped troops, Japan depends a lot more on high-tech weapons, and lots of them, plus lots of training for its all-volunteer force.
North Korea spends a disproportionate amount of its defense budget on ballistic missiles and trying to perfect nuclear weapons. Since Japan is an island its army has only 150,000 troops. The structure of the Japanese army is also unique. It has nine divisions (eight infantry and one armored) and eight independent combat brigades (five infantry, one airborne, one airmobile and one amphibious). The divisions are relatively small with 6,000 to 9,000 troops each while the brigades have 3,000-4,000 troops each. These brigades and divisions are heavy on firepower. All the infantry divisions and brigades are basically local defense units. The divisions have only three infantry battalions with the artillery and other support units typical in larger Western infantry divisions. One of those three infantry battalions is usually mechanized and acts as a mobile reserve. These Japanese divisions depend on a lot of artillery and air defense weapons plus excellent communications. The brigades are basically divisions without most of the support units. The airborne, airmobile and amphibious brigades are mobile reserve forces as is the one armored division. That unit has 6,500 troops, 230 tanks and 350 IFVs (Infantry Fighting vehicles) for its one infantry battalion and many of the support troops.
The navy and air force each have about 50,000 personnel and world-class ships, aircraft and other weapons. Most of the defense budget goes to equipping and maintaining these ships, aircraft and missile systems. The first line of defense is the fleet and air force. While the air force has 760 aircraft, the navy has 346, in addition to 154 ships. The air force is usually the first responder when any potentially hostile ships or aircraft come near any of the islands. The navy has a lot of combat ships, all of modern design. These include 30 destroyers, six equipped with the Aegis air defense system that can also intercept ballistic missiles. Two more Aegis destroyer are on the way. There are also four “helicopter destroyers” that look like small aircraft carriers, which is what they actually are. The post-World War II Japanese constitution prohibits Japan from having aircraft carriers but the “helicopter destroyers” are being modified to use the vertical takeoff F-35B stealth fighter. Japan is making a big investment in these aircraft. In late 2018 Japan decided to order another 99 F-35 fighters. This will cost about $15 billion, spread over nearly a decade of annual defense budgets. Most will be the land-based F-35A model but as many as 40 will be F-35Bs, the version that can operate from carriers. Japan already has 42 F-35As on order to replace 73 elderly F-4E interceptors. The new F-35As on order are to replace a hundred older F-15J fighter-bombers. Another hundred more recently built F-15Js have been upgraded with digital communications and fire control gear that can cooperate with F-35s.
There may be more Japanese F-35 orders because its locally designed F-2 maritime attack aircraft has been canceled on account of high cost and uncertain performance. Japan also sought to design and build a stealthy replacement for the 1990s era F-2s but concluded it would be too expensive for just a hundred aircraft and such an “X-2” aircraft could not compete against the American F-35 in export markets, assuming Japan changed its constitution to allow weapons exports. So now Japan is planning to eventually replace the F-2 with F-35s. Japan imports a lot of foreign warplanes but usually assembles them locally under license, which it will do with the F-35s. Japan-built weapons, whether local designs or under license, tend to be much more expensive than those same weapons built elsewhere. That’s because Japan uses military procurement to provide the maximum number of jobs. This is not unique to Japan but the Japanese do it on a grander scale. Japan also produces very well built and sturdy warplanes and warships as a result.
Ordering some F-35Bs makes it clear that Japan is going to experiment with some of these aircraft aboard the existing Japanese “helicopter carriers”. Since 2017 Japan has had operational two 27,000 ton “destroyers” (DDH type ships) that look exactly like an aircraft carrier. These Izumo class ships can carry up to 28 helicopters or up to ten vertical takeoff aircraft. The carriers are armed only with two 20mm Phalanx anti-missile cannon and launcher with sixteen ESSM missiles for anti-missile defense. The DDH have powerful engines capable of destroyer-like speeds of over fifty-four kilometers an hour. There are also more medical facilities than one would expect for a ship of this size. Izumo does have considerable cargo capacity, which is intended for moving disaster relief supplies quickly to where they are needed. Apparently some of these cargo spaces can be converted to berthing spaces for troops, disaster relief personnel, or people rescued from disasters, as well as additional weapons and equipment needed to support F-35B fighter-bombers. Izumo can carry and operate at least ten of the vertical take-off F-35B stealth fighters once modifications were made to the flight deck to handle the extremely high temperatures the F-35B generates when taking off or landing vertically, like a helicopter. When the first DDH entered service in 2015 Japan made no mention of buying F-35Bs or modifying the LPH flight decks to handle the F-35B. The Izumos already have an elevator (to the hanger deck under the flight deck) powerful enough to carry an F-35B fighter.
The air force also handles the long-range air-defense systems, including Patriot batteries and two Aegis Ashore systems (identical to the Aegis systems on warships). Japan is developing more powerful air defense systems as well as new electronic warfare weapons. This includes some innovative jamming systems.
Japan also has a submarine force of very quiet and lethal diesel-electric boats, most with AIP (air-independent propulsion) that allows submerged operations lasting several weeks. This submarine force is being expanded to 22 boats.
There are 16 smaller (frigate and corvette) surface warships plus 30 minesweepers, three landing ships and lots of support ships.
The air force has 300 modern fighters, with the older ones being upgraded or replaced with F-35s. There are 13 AWACS (aerial radar and air control) aircraft, five intelligence collection aircraft and about 70 two and four-engine transports. The air force also has about fifty helicopters.
The army has about 490 aircraft, most of them helicopters. There are 17 V-22 vertical takeoff and landing transports on order.
The navy has 346 aircraft, 145 of them helicopters with most of those serving on ships. The fixed wing aircraft include 42 F-35Bs on order as well as about a hundred maritime patrol aircraft with the rest being transports and trainers.
South Korea has a larger army than Japan because South Korea has to face the possibility of a land invasion by North Korea. South Korea also has a large and modern air force, including F-35s. Currently South Korea is buying only about half as many F-35s as Japan. That is expected to change, especially since South Korea is also building DDH type chips that can operate F-35Bs.
North Korea considers all these F-35 purchases a hostile act and direct threat to North Korea. That about sums it up. In the event of a war, the U.S. plans to bring in over 200 more air force and navy F-35s. Even more hostility.
South Korea is also building Aegis destroyers and more AIP powered submarines.