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Asia Pacific

Japan’s Strategic Challenge


You may download and play the PowerPoint slideshow herejapan2 or follow the link to the YouTube video here.

Japan is a nation in the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of East Asia. The Japanese archipelago consists of 6,852 islands; however, the four main islands comprise 98% of the land area and 99% of the population. East of Japan is the main expanse of the Pacific Ocean, which provides a strategic hinterland that isolates and defends the islands from that direction. Japan’s nearest neighbors lie across smaller bodies of water: Russia to the north across the Sea of Okhotsk; North and South Korea to the west across the Sea of Japan; and China and Taiwan to the south-west across the East China Sea. The western and south-western approaches are the traditional avenues of invasion to and from Japan over the centuries.

The country is a constitutional monarchy, with the Emperor Akihito reigning since 1989 as the 125th successor to the Chrysanthemum Throne. The functions of the Emperor as head of state are largely ceremonial and strictly constrained by the Japanese Constitution. Power is invested in a bicameral legislature, the National Diet, from which the Prime Minister is selected. The current head of government is Shinzo Abe, of the center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Japan has the 10th largest population in the world with 127.6 million people; but the long average life expectancy and low birth rate of the Japanese means the population has been falling since a 2006 peak of over 128 million. The population is forecast to fall to 95 million people by 2050; the largest non-violent population contraction in recorded history.  There is no agreement on how to address this loss of population: half-hearted measures to encourage marriage and more children per family have been notably unsuccessful, while immigration remains highly controversial.

Japan nevertheless boasts the third largest economy in the world, equivalent to 4.2 trillion dollars, and a highly advanced manufacturing sector. Exports equal 17% of GDP while imports are 18%; a quarter of which are energy imports like oil, natural gas and coal.

Japan’s principal export markets are: Japan’s principal import partners are:
China 18% China 21%
United States 18%

United States

South Korea 8% Australia and Saudi Arabia


Hong Kong 5% South Korea and UAE 5%
Thailand 5% Qatar 4%

This dependency on energy imports has been exacerbated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the subsequent shut-down of all Japanese reactors, and the slow pace of their reactivation. Because Japan lies on the volcanic zone of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the islands consist of mountainous terrain unsuitable to large-scale agriculture over much of the land surface.  The country also lacks many prime materials necessary for modern industry including: iron ore, alumina, bauxite, copper and traditional fossil fuel energy sources. Like Britain, another island nation, control of the sea lanes is not an option for Japan. This lesson was demonstrated conclusively by the United States Navy in the later stages of the Second World War.

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Opposing Forces & JSDF

The four principal “home islands” of the Japanese are: Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido. Japan has sovereignty over the islands of Nakadori and Fukue, off the west coast of Kyushu; the Ogasawara Islands, including Ogasawara and Iwo Jima; and the Ryukyu Islands including: Tanegashima, Yakushima, Amami, Tokunoshima, Okinawa, Miyako, Ishigaki and Yonaguni. These are the larger, inhabited islands; there are many uninhabited rocks scattered throughout these archipelagos.

Japan is engaged in a number of disputes with her neighbors over control of other islands in the surrounding seas:

  • Tsushima (or Dokdo) Island is controlled by Japan, but claimed by both Koreas;
  • Iturup, Shikotan, Habomai, and Kunashir islands are controlled by Russia, but claimed by Japan;
  • The Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands) are controlled by Japan, but claimed by China and Taiwan.

Only the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands dispute with China can be considered dangerous at this time; but the friction arising from these disputes, and from Japan’s imperial history prior to the end of the Second World War, has created an unfavorable threat environment. Only South Korea can be considered friendly and that mostly due to the fact that both South Korea and Japan are US allies.

Relations with Russia have improved significantly since the end of the Cold War, but the tensions over the continuing stand-off in Ukraine means that Japan cannot ignore the possibility of conflict between Russia and the United States, Japan’s principal ally. Vladivostok is Russia’s main Pacific port and home of the Pacific Fleet. The surface fleet is no longer the potent striking force it once was: today consisting of a Slava-class guided missile cruiser as flagship, a Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyer and four Udaloy-class anti-submarine warfare destroyers. Of greater concern are the submarine forces: five ballistic missile submarines, five cruise missile submarines, four nuclear attack submarines and eight diesel attack submarines.

To the west, the totalitarian state of North Korea lacks a potent naval threat, but the development of Taepodong I, II and III missiles gives Pyongyang the capability to reach any part of Japan with a conventional, chemical or nuclear warhead. The North Koreans have demonstrated this in characteristic fashion, by launching their ballistic missile tests over Japan and having them splash down in the Pacific Ocean on the far side of the islands.

The greatest challenge for Japan – the one military planners are most concerned with – is the growing power of and deteriorating relations with China. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (or PLAN) has made very large and sustained investments and is today the largest fleet in the world. But beyond mere numbers, the PLAN has worked diligently in expanding their capabilities with the aim of moving from a brown water fleet confined to their coast to a blue water fleet capable of projecting power and securing China’s own maritime supply lines.

The PLAN is divided into three commands: the North Sea Fleet, the East Sea Fleet and the South Sea Fleet. The South Sea fleet is the largest of the three, but not directly focused on Japan. The North Sea Fleet is headquartered in Qingdao and consists of six destroyers and eight frigates – divided between anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine roles – as well as four corvettes and five medium amphibious warfare ships (LST’s). The North Sea Fleet also has subsurface forces consisting of China’s lone Xia-class ballistic missile submarine, four nuclear attack submarines and between fifteen and twenty diesel subs.

Of greater concern for the Japanese military is the powerful East Sea Fleet. With headquarters in Ningbo and major bases at Shanghai, Xiangshan, Zhoushan and Fujian, the East Sea Fleet commands the bulk of China’s amphibious capabilities: eleven medium landings ships defended by eight guided missile destroyers, seventeen frigates and four corvettes. There are also seven diesel subs. The fleet’s mission is very pointedly to be prepared for an invasion of Taiwan, should the need ever arise; but that same amphibious capability could be turned against the Southern Ryukyu Islands, which are geographically closer to China than to Japan.

The PLA Navy also has two brigades of naval infantry deployed with the South Sea Fleet, but these could easily be moved northward and would form the core of any invasion force of Taiwan or the Ryukyus. They are backed by the air regiments of the PLA Air Force. The Nanjing Military District – opposite Taiwan – has 9 air superiority fighter regiments, 3 attack aircraft regiments, and 3 bomber regiments. Each regiment consists of between 40 and 50 aircraft. Additional regiments could be drawn from neighboring military districts in the event of a conflict: the Jinan District, the Beijing District and the Shenyang District.

For the defense of her territory, Japan relies on the Self-Defense Forces, or JSDF. The Constitution renounces war as a policy option for the nation and prohibits the military from operating certain categories of offensive weapons, like strategic bombers and aircraft carriers. Nevertheless, the JSDF is a highly professional, well-trained and well-equipped force in the finest traditions of excellence of  Japan’s armed forces. The Maritime Self-Defense Force in particular still traces its lineage to the Imperial Japanese Navy – something the Ground and Air Force do not do – and considers itself the heir of Admirals Togo Heihachiro and Isoroku Yamamoto.

The Japanese Navy is divided into four commands, with headquarters at: Yokohama, Sasebo, Maizuru and Kure. Each command is built around a surface Escort Flotilla consisting of a helicopter destroyer, two air defense frigates and five anti-submarine or surface warfare frigates. The Navy also has five Submarine Flotillas with three diesel attack boats each of the excellent Soryu- and Oyashio-classes. Three submarine flotillas are stationed at Kure and two at Yokohama. The Japanese Navy also has aviation assets which consist of Lockheed P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft and Mitsubishi SH-60 helicopters also used as sub-hunters.

That leaves the Japanese Air Force with responsibility for maritime air defense and strike, roles for which JASDF pilots regularly train. The Southwestern Composite Air Division is stationed at Okinawa and consists of the 83rd Air Wing with F-15J fighters as well as the 5th Air Defense Missile Group with Patriot PAC-2 missile batteries. The Western Air Defense Force is based in Kyushu and consists of the 8th Air Wing with the F-15Js of 304 Squadron and F-2 A/B’s of 6 Squadron at Tsuiki Air Base and the 5th Air Wing with 301 Squadron flying F-4EJ’s out of Nyutabaru Air Base. Central Honshu is defended by the 6th Air Wing, with F-15J’s in the 303 and 306 Squadrons, and the 7th Air Wing with F-15J’s and F-4EJ’s in two squadrons. Northern Honshu and Hokkaido are defended by 2nd and 3rd Air Wings flying two squadrons of F-15J’s and F-2 A/B’s. Each Air Wing has an air defense regiment consisting of batteries of Patriot PAC-2 missiles.

The Ground Self-Defense Force also contributes light forces that are air mobile and amphibious to the defense of the archipelago. The 15th Brigade is stationed on Okinawa and has responsibility for the entire Ryukyu Island chain. It consists of the 51st Light Infantry Regiment, the 15th Aviation Battalion with medium and heavy transport helicopters, and the 6th Air Defense Artillery Battalion, firing Hawk surface-to-air missiles. The Western Army Infantry Regiment is an independent light infantry unit in Kyushu. Because Japan cannot have “offensive” Marine units, the WAIR is part of the Ground SDF; but it is based at the major naval port of Sasebo and trains in amphibious as well as air mobile operations. It is a rapidly deployable force that is also tasked with defense of Japan’s far-flung islands. Finally, there is the Central Readiness Force, headquartered near Tokyo. It consists of 1st Airborne Brigade, the Central Readiness Regiment of light infantry, the Special Forces Group, approximately battalion strength, and the 1st Aviation Brigade, with medium and heavy transport helicopters.

These are the primary forces Japan has to defend itself. The Ground SDF also has one armored division and eight mechanized infantry divisions, but these are for the defense of the Home Islands and unlikely to be engaged or redeployed in a naval war with China.

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US Forces Japan

Japan benefits from the advantage of its intimate military alliance with the United States, who acts as ultimate guarantor of territorial integrity, shield against nuclear threat, and who has “skin in the game” in the form of substantial assets stationed in the country. Okinawa is home to the III Marine Expeditionary Force, with the 4th Marine Regiment, 12th Artillery Regiment and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (a reinforced battalion). The ground troops are backed by the F/A-18’s of the 242 Squadron, 1st Marine Air Wing. Additional regiments belonging to the III MEF are stationed in Hawaii, but could be transported to Okinawa in times of severe crisis.

The Fifth US Air Force is also part of the US Forces Pacific Command. Based on Okinawa, the 18th Air Wing has 44 and 67 Squadrons with F-15C/D’s as well as the E-2B/C AWACS of the 961 Squadron. Near Tokyo, the 35th Air Wing has the F-16C/D’s of 13 and 14 Squadrons and more AWACS in the 610 Squadron. The USAF also provides ballistic missile defense through the 14th Missile Defense Battery of Patriot PAC-3 launchers in western central Honshu.

The US Navy is represented by the 7th Fleet, headquartered at Yokohama. This consists of a carrier battle group centered on the USS George Washington, two Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers, seven Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and the USS Blue Ridge Command Ship. A separate squadron is based at Kure, consisting of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, USS Bonhomme Richard, two amphibious LSD’s, and four mine countermeasure vessels. There are also three Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines in Apra Harbor, Guam (not shown).

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The Military Challenge

In any hypothetical future naval conflict, China must consider the Ryukyu Islands as a challenging barrier. Under enemy control, the islands make the easy and undetected passage of ships into the Pacific nearly impossible. They also serve as “unsinkable” bases that threaten key Chinese cities, ports and sea lanes. Ships and submarines seeking to enter the Pacific could traverse the 125-mile wide Amami Strait or the 160-mile wide Miyako Strait. The northern Amami Strait is not only narrower; it is well within range of Japan’s main naval and air forces on Kyushu. The wider Miyako Strait is therefore preferred: it is further from the Home Islands, less well-defended, and closer to the most likely target, Taiwan. Nonetheless, the Japanese and American forces based in Okinawa would still be a formidable force for the Chinese to deal with or avoid.

Okinawa is probably too well-defended for the Chinese to tackle directly with their current amphibious forces. Additionally, there is the possibility that the Chinese may seek to avoid attacking US installations and personnel in an effort to limit a future conflict to Japan only, or to Japan and Taiwan. The PLA Navy would likely focus on the vulnerable Southern Ryukyu Islands of Miyako, Ishigaki and Yonaguni: seizing them would negate the Japanese barrier and allow the East Sea Fleet a clear path. Air and sea forces based in Okinawa would be deterred from attacking by the rapid deployment of anti-air and anti-ship missiles to the captured islands.

Movements of the Japanese Navy, including any attempt to recapture the southern islands, would be challenged by China’s Second Artillery Corps, which is in charge of all ballistic missiles. The Corps fields at least two regiments of DF-21 mobile launchers with sufficient range to cover all of Japan and well-beyond. The DF-21 missile is a medium range ballistic missile known as the “carrier-killer”: carrying a nuclear or large conventional warhead, this missile is purported to be able to detect and identify a carrier-sized target and course-correct the terminal warhead onto the target at hypersonic speed. Its mobility and reloading capability makes it a difficult target to destroy. The southern Ryukyus are also within range of the older, short-range DF-15 ballistic missiles.

The Chinese coast and key installations are protected from US and Japanese aircraft by a sophisticated and multi-layered air defense network, including DWL002 passive radar system, reported to have a significant stealth detection capability even against US fifth generation aircraft; airborne KJ-2000 AWACS; and batteries of S-300PMU2 anti-aircraft missiles, with a range of 120 miles. Not even the US Air Force has faced such a challenging threat environment since the end of the Cold War.

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Japan’s Response

Alarm has been growing in Japan apace with the increase in Chinese capabilities. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has increased military spending and recently passed a defense bill through the Diet that comes close to “normalizing” the status of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. More is needed, however, if Japan wants to present a credible conventional deterrent to Chinese adventurism. Weak points in Japan’s defenses need to be strengthened, equipment must be modernized and sufficient reserve forces established to allow the Japanese to conduct operations even without the support of the United States.

Japan could invest in an array passive hydrophonic sensors along the length of the Ryukyu Islands. Like the highly successful SOSUS-network operated by NATO in the North Atlantic, these sensors would make life nasty, brutish and short for any Chinese submarine attempting to sneak through them undetected. The Miyako and Amami Straits would be the first priority, but the network could eventually be expanded all the way from Yonaguni to Kyushu.

In order to deter a swift, surprise attack to capture the Southern Ryukyu’s, Japan should provision forward deployed equipment ready to be mated to an air transportable light infantry force. Eventually, a light infantry regiment could be permanently based on Miyakojima with responsibility for defending the surrounding islands. To assist them, the Japanese could also place batteries of anti-ship Harpoon or Naval Strike Missile in mobile launchers at Miyakojima, Okinawa, Tokunoshima, and southern Kyushu. These would be defended by additional batteries of Patriot PAC-3 anti-aircraft missiles on Miyakojima and Tokunoshima.

The hundreds of large and small rocky islands that make up the Ryukyu chain make it an ideal hunting ground for smaller ships, like corvettes and littoral combat ships. The ships of only a few thousand tons displacement and shallow drafts are capable of hiding from radar detection between rocks and islands where an aircraft carrier cannot go, emerging at high speed to launch a salvo of anti-ship missiles, and retreating into cover just as quickly. Japan is in the process of developing an indigenous littoral combat ship design based on the US Independence-class. Four to eight of these should be built to provide a less expensive, but potent defense force for the islands.

The Japanese Navy should also consider building two more Izumo-class helicopter destroyers. The two Izumo-class ships currently in commission and the two, smaller Hyuga-class destroyers provide a critical amphibious capability for the Japanese Navy; but four ships do not provide Japan with much margin of security. One ship is likely to be in port for refit at any given time, while consideration must be made for another one or two being damaged or lost during combat operations. The addition of two more ships would ensure that four ships could always be at sea and that two Escort Flotillas, rather than just one, could continue to operate even if suffering 50% losses in action. Despite being classified as destroyers, these ships are large enough to accommodate the V/STOL capable F-35B that will slowly equip US Marine forces as of 2016. Japan should make provision to equip each Izumo- and Hyuga-class ship with a complement of up 14 Joint Strike Fighters.

I have argued before that the United States should reopen the F-22 production line and increase the number of Raptors in the USAF. If that were to occur, Congress should authorize an export version of the air superiority fighter with Japan specifically in mind. Japan could then replace the aging F-4EJ and F-2A/B fighters with F-22J squadrons while configuring the F-15J’s into multi-role strike aircraft.

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Building up a credible defensive deterrent and counter-strike capabilities would require a considerable investment; much greater than Japan has made since the end of the Second World War. The defense budget has remained at a consistent 1% of GDP since at least 1988. The growth of China’s economy as well as their military spending has caused them to catch up: Chinese military spending exceeded Japan’s for the first time in either 2001 or 2005, depending on whether you use the estimates published by the US Department of Defense or China’s official figures. The PLA’s budget is now at least four times greater than Japan’s and growing. While the Japanese do not and cannot enter a military spending competition with China, a higher target of at least 2% of GDP will close the gap and allow the Self-Defense Forces to keep their deterrent value.

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