Military analysts are constantly looking at the modernization of China’s armed forces and there’s a lot of debate about just how capable and threatening they really are. Some view them as a major potential threat while others – I’m one of them – think the great majority of them are just too far behind in training, doctrine and technology to be much of a threat to any major western power. There is one military in the western Pacific that’s been quietly building up its capabilities to a formidable size, though, and it’s been pretty much overlooked for a long time. That military is the Japanese Self Defense Force.
The Japanese armed forces were abolished after the Second World War, but in the early 1950’s some military functions were returned to Japanese control by the Allied occupiers, and the Self Defense Force was formed in 1954. It has three branches – the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces. These correspond to the Army, Navy and Air Force of most other countries. Initially, their role was purely defensive; the idea was that US forces based in Japan would deal with any external attacks while the JSDF handled natural disasters and internal threats.
As the Cold War drug on, Japan’s forces slowly became more capable, especially the Navy. All branches initially used mostly US equipment, and to some extent still do, but increasingly it’s been replaced by local designs. The Air Self Defense Force is mostly equipped with US-designed aircraft, but most of these are either license-built in Japan or heavily modified there; typically the electronics are all replaced by indigenous systems which are often very capable. A Mitsubishi F-15J doesn’t share a lot with its McDonnell Douglas F-15D counterpart except the basic airframe and engines; electronically it’s an almost entirely Japanese aircraft.
In recent years, the antimilitarism that had limited the size and role of the JSDF since its foundation has begun to fade. I met Japanese troops in Basrah in 2003; they were there to carry out non-combat tasks, like medical support, but it was probably the first overseas deployment of the JSDF. Now the role of the military is slowly being rethought and it has the potential to become a powerful persuader behind Tokyo’s foreign policy. As willingness to deploy the force has increased, its ability to project power has kept in step; the Air Force operates a small fleet of modern KC-767J tankers, allowing JASDF fast jets to operate well offshore.
More interesting is what’s happening in the JMSDF. Japan has been operating what it calls “helicopter destroyers” since the first of the Shirane class commissioned in 1980. The Shiranes were relatively conventional destroyers with a light weapons fit and large aft flight deck. Their replacements are very different. The Hyuga class (two ships, commissioned in 2009 and 2011) and Izumo class (one commissioned March 2015, one building) are flat-topped ships with defensive armament only. Officially they’re helicopter carriers, but Japan has placed an order for F-35As; if F-35Bs were added to that, they could easily operate off the big decks. These ships also have a formidable assault landing capability; they give Japan the capability to project real power, probably more effectively than China could.
Meanwhile, the JGSDF, the Army, is well trained and equipped. Most ground force equipment is now indigenous, from the brand new Type 10 battle tank to the Howa Type 89 assault rifle, and most of it is very high quality indeed.
Overall, the JSDF is probably the most formidable military in the western Pacific. It’s a lot smaller than China’s PLA, but man for man its better trained and equipped. In most respects it is up to NATO standards. There’s also a high degree of interoperability with most NATO nations, thanks to common equipment standards. Japan is pretty much one of the good guys these days and that’s just as well, because their military is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.