The dozens of Type 90, or “Kyumaru” tanks that rumble during recent gunnery exercises on the island of Hokkaido, northern Japan, illustrate the challenge facing its arms manufacturers both at home and abroad. abroad as the country strengthens its defenses against strategic threats.
The Self-Defense Force needs the most advanced planes and weapons sold by US arms manufacturers as Japan’s strategic focus shifts from Russia north to south, where it faces incursions from Chinese fighter jets and ships and North Korean missile launches.
Major Japanese defense manufacturers like Mitsubishi, IHI Corp. and Kawasaki Heavy Industries struggle to sell 20th century tanks, planes and warships. They must develop better technology to serve an army in the unmanned aircraft market like the Tritons manufactured by Northrop Grumman and the Echo Voyager submarine by Boeing.
Likewise, Japan’s international arms sales never really took off. Uncompetitive, with high prices, aging technology, and limited government support, arms manufacturers in Japan are increasingly withdrawing from the industry.
Kyumaru heavy tanks built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries debuted 30 years ago and are being replaced by lighter, more mobile armored vehicles that can travel on public roads or have amphibious capabilities, including assault vehicles. American amphibians.
“People may think that Japan has advanced technology and that it can quickly catch up with the rest and start selling equipment if it only gets serious, but I think it’s wrong,” Heigo Sato said. , defense expert and professor at Takushoku University in Hokkaido.
“The problem is, Japan’s defense products are not top quality. No one is interested in buying second or third quality products at higher prices, ”he said.
Japan established its own acquisition, technology, and logistics agency in 2015 to try to boost the sluggish national defense industry and promote joint technology research, development and sales with friendly countries. But profits declined at home, as the government, instead of promoting sales, increased major purchases in the United States.
Japan is the 12th largest arms importer in the world, with a global share of 2.2%. Most of the purchases come from its ally the United States, according to the latest survey by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a global research organization.
A large and growing portion of the Department of Defense’s $ 17.7 billion annually in equipment purchases is made through the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. They more than tripled from $ 1.7 billion in 2014 to $ 6.2 billion in 2019, when Japan placed orders for F-35 stealth fighters, missile interceptors and other equipment. costly to strengthen its defenses against China and North Korea.
Haggling over expensive US jets and other equipment has slowed progress in overhauling the country’s defenses, Defense Department officials said.
Japan negotiated the cost of modernizing dozens of F-15 fighter jets, which doubled from the US initial estimate, from $ 4.8 billion to $ 3.5 billion , they said. To keep costs down, Japan switched to domestically-made short-range air-to-surface missiles from the original plan to use long-range U.S. anti-ship cruise missiles, among other revisions, they said.
Army officials at the Hokkaido exercises said they would take whatever equipment they could. One official joked that his camouflage uniforms were probably still Japanese made.
Japan’s utter defeat in World War II, as it attempted to conquer much of Asia, left many Japanese wary of military build-ups. The post-war constitution restricts the use of force to self-defense, and the ban on arms exports was not lifted until 2014.
Additionally, Japanese scientists tend to be reluctant to engage in research and development of technologies that can be used for military purposes.
Since the launch of the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency, Japan has sold only one finished product – a surveillance radar – to the Philippines. It first distributed five used TC-90 trainers as well as pilot training and 40,000 spare parts for the UH-1H multipurpose helicopters.
In 2016, a possible breakthrough sale of Soryu-class submarine technology failed when Australia chose France to develop 12 diesel submarines. That $ 65 billion deal was recently scuttled when Australia switched to nuclear submarines as part of the AUKUS Pact with Britain and the United States.
Negotiations over the sale of a dozen US-2 ShinMaywa Industries seaplanes to India have been delayed by price disagreements. Japan’s attempts to export radar to Thailand and frigates to Indonesia were also unsuccessful.
As a laggard, Japan lacks the marketing and technology transfer expertise of the United States, with its FMS program, and other major exporters.
“Japan needs to be more competitive, more assertive and also more willing to engage with customers in the marketing and promotion of defense platforms,” said Jon Grevatt, director of research and analysis, Indo – peaceful at Janes, at a recent online event. .
Government and industry have not completely given up. Japan is developing its own long-range surface-to-air cruise missile, and as China’s military build-up now spills into cyberspace and outer space, the Defense Ministry has started to push for research and development of autonomous vehicles, supersonic flights and artificial intelligence. other “game-changing” technologies.
Experts say Japan should speed up work on drones, satellite constellations and technology against electronic attacks. To fund such research, the ministry requested a record budget of $ 2.55 billion for the year starting April 2022, up 38% from this year.
Japan is also continuing the joint development of its next-generation FX fighter jet with the United States and Britain to replace its aging F-2 fleet by around 2035. Japan and Britain recently announced their intention to jointly develop a future fighter jet engine demonstrator and explore work on other air combat technologies and subsystems. The project includes Japanese companies Mitsubishi and IHI and Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems in the UK.
It’s a race against time as defense contractors give up.
Yu Yamada, a senior executive with the Japan Business Federation for the defense industry, said it has more than 60 member companies with defense-related operations, a decline of around 10 in recent years.
Komatsu Ltd., a leading manufacturer of construction equipment, has stopped developing and manufacturing armored vehicles after upgrades failed to meet Ministry of Defense requirements. Komatsu, once the seventh supplier, now only services the existing fleets that it supplied. He’s still making ammunition.
In March, Mitsui E&S Shipbuilding Co. sold its warship unit to the main Japanese contractor, Mitsubishi. Daicel Corp., a leading manufacturer of electronic and chemical equipment and supplier of ejection seats for warplanes, is abandoning unprofitable defense activities to shift resources elsewhere.
Sumitomo Heavy Industries has stopped manufacturing 5.56-millimeter machine guns, citing grim long-term prospects.
If the trend continues, the military and defense industries could face supply issues, higher costs or quality issues, Yamada said. “Supply chains cannot be rebuilt in one or two years. The industry is facing a fairly difficult situation, ”he said.
In an emailed statement, the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency acknowledged that maintaining a national defense industry base was “a challenge” as the companies pulled back. “We need to ensure that businesses succeed smoothly so that technology from major vendors is not lost in the event of a withdrawal. ”