Focused on its region: an overview of Japan’s latest security moves
13 May 2024|

As Japan becomes more forward-leading in national security, it is signaling a greater interest in the wider world. But a review of its latest moves shows its main focus is on reinforcing its armed forces, particularly through a new military command structure with its most important ally, the United States.

Last month Prime Minister Kishida Fumio reiterated before the US Congress that Japan was a ‘global partner’ to the United States. Nonetheless, Tokyo’s main concerns remain closer to home, as it worries about North Korean and Chinese aggression.

Still, a key implication from Kishida’s Washington visit was Japan’s unswerving commitment to greater integration with the US armed forces—via enhanced command and control and intelligence-sharing, and in emerging domains such as space. Tokyo is also expanding its security relations with other like-minded neighbours and opening the door to defence technology cooperation.

Japan has come a long way since former prime minister Abe Shinzo, standing nine years ago on the same spot as Kishida, ‘resolved to take yet more responsibility for [world] peace and stability.’ It has redoubled its leadership in the G7, G20, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, World Bank and other international groups. And it played a critical role in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreements. It even deepened its connection with NATO after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But Japan’s threats are close, and addressing them at home and in its own region remains its top priority, as evidenced by the actions it has taken in the past few years to bolster its security and work more closely with partners. Keeping track of its many steps is challenging, so what follows is an overview.

Sharpening strategic focus

Japan’s latest strategic documents—an updated national security strategy, national defence strategy and defence build-up program, all released in December 2022—do not dramatically differ from earlier policies in their primary security commitments. But they do reflect a deepened concern over Russia’s war in Ukraine, North Korea’s continued nuclear provocations, and worsening tensions over Taiwan.

They also demonstrate Tokyo’s determination to build world-class capabilities in active cyber defence and economic security fit for today’s changed information-security environment.

Growing defence spending

Japan is moving ahead with plans to increase annual defence spending from ¥5.4 trillion in 2022 to ¥8.9 trillion by 2027. While not quite the doubling of defence spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product that is sometimes reported, the buildup still sends a strongly positive signal to countries and companies invested in Japan’s defence.

Already, Tokyo’s defence budget is up by 50 percent from 2022 levels, and this new funding is being put to a variety of acquisitions.

Missile defence and counterstrike

Japan is systematically upgrading what it calls ‘shield’ and ‘spear’ capabilities. Its navy is developing a design for two ships with the Aegis air-and-missile defence system; these will be built instead of formerly planned Aegis Ashore batteries. The ships will complement Japan’s eight destroyers that have the original Aegis system designed for naval installation.

Japan is also acquiring various counterstrike capabilities, including Tomahawk sea-launched and JASSM-ER air-launched cruise missiles, both types coming from the United States. In 2023 alone, Tokyo secured US foreign military sale determinations for the medium-range AMRAAM and short-range AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, along with the RAM Block 2B naval air-defence missiles.

Japan is even helping to backstop Western armaments sent to Ukraine. Side-stepping its own long-standing weapons export rules established in 1967, Tokyo approved the transfer of Japan-manufactured Patriot surface-to-air missiles to the United States to replenish stocks that the United States had depleted in supplying Ukraine.

Defence technology cooperation

Notably, Japan is opening the tap for defence technology co-development. In 2014, it ended nearly 50 years of self-imposed international arms controls. Until then, the United States had been one of the primary exempted nations from  Tokyo’s restrictions on defence technology-sharing, while other countries like Indonesia and the Philippines benefited from occasional one-off transfers.

The SM-3 Cooperative Development program, begun in 2006, has been the most fruitful example of US-Japan military co-development. But the defence technology transfer principles set in 2014 and revised in December allow Tokyo to pursue wider defence-technology research and development with the United States and other countries.

Japan, Britain and Italy agreed last year to jointly develop an advanced fighter. That’s an example of what is becoming possible as Tokyo expands and deepens security partnerships.

Enhanced operational command

At their meeting in April, Kishida and President Joe Biden unveiled an important set of long-awaited measures to modernise the alliance command and control architecture. The two countries are also deepening their interoperability and combined force planning and plan to strengthen bilateral intelligence collection, sharing and analysis.

Major overhauls to day-to-day alliance coordination are anticipated in the coming months as Washington weighs options for a counterpart to Japan’s plans for a Joint Operations Command.

Space and emerging domains

In addition to operational support for Tomahawks, the Kishida-Biden summit produced new deliverables around cooperation on a future low-earth orbit satellite constellation for detecting and tracking hypersonic weapons. The two countries will also work together on a counter-hypersonics Glide Phase Interceptor.

Three US-based operational ground stations for Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, which supports US military space domain awareness, were completed in time for the summit, expanding collaboration in this critical emerging domain of strategic competition.

Regional networked deterrence

Kishida and Biden announced new efforts focused on minilateral collaboration designed to project regional deterrence. The two countries are exploring collaboration in advanced projects as part of AUKUS Pillar 2, a security partnership of Australia, Britain and the United States. The Biden administration has indicated it will seek to identify a suitable project for expanded Pillar 2 cooperation with Japan by the end of the year.

Tokyo and Washington are also developing a new missile-defence network with Australia and exploring further cooperation on drone development, other combat aircraft and autonomy. Japan and Australia are pursuing bilateral collaboration to develop integrated radar and sensor capabilities.

Trilateral exercises with South Korea to enhance multi-domain readiness, similar exercises with Britain next year, and emerging maritime cooperation with the Philippines all will provide additional vectors for enhanced minilateralism in the months ahead.

Defence industrial alignment

Biden and Kishida announced a forum on Defence Industry Cooperation on Acquisition and Sustainment (DICAS) to identify further opportunities for co-development, co-production, and co-sustainment. This will tap into Japan’s revitalised interest in defence technology collaboration. The forum will seek to build on the Systems and Technology Forum established in 1980 to promote two-way defence technology sharing and transfers.

DICAS follows the signature in January 2023 of technology research and security of supply arrangements to strengthen bilateral collaboration on advanced technologies and defence supply chains. It also builds on last September’s launch of a Defence Science and Technology Cooperation Group to improve alignment of the two countries’ innovation ecosystems.

Already, these efforts are broadening cooperation. For instance, US and Japanese air forces are working together on artificial intelligence and machine-learning systems for advanced drones that would operate alongside Japan’s next fighter aircraft. The US Navy is also investigating the use of Japan’s large commercial shipyards for short-term maintenance and repairs for warships  forward-deployed to the Indo-Pacific, as well as potential collaboration with Japanese companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to restore dormant US shipyards. Speaking at the annual Sea-Air-Space Conference in April, US Navy secretary Carlos Del Toro reiterated Washington’s interest in Japan’s shipbuilding capabilities—and South Korea’s—which he marveled could produce ‘high-quality ships, including Aegis destroyers, for a fraction of the cost that we do’ using digital tools.

In the coming months, DICAS is expected to convene two initial working groups—one focused on ship repair—to explore these and additional emerging areas of defence industrial alignment.

Domestic industrial security upgrades

Finally, Tokyo is in the process of upgrading its industrial security and cyber practices to keep up with today’s threat environment.

It is undertaking a major overhaul of its primary cybersecurity agency and a significant expansion of its civil-service and military cyber workforce.

In addition, the Japanese parliament on 10 May passed legislation to enhance protections for confidential information and to mandate security clearance checks at government agencies and companies with access to official and proprietary secrets. The bill is a crucial step towards facilitating domestic public-private and international cooperation on defence technology development.

On both sides of the Pacific, it will be necessary to apply pressure to sustain the momentum of US-Japan defence cooperation achieved with Kishida’s visit to the United States.