Changing priorities

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Growing regional threats meant Japan's defence procurement plans were relatively unaffected by economic downturn

Andrzej Jeziorski/TOKYO

The need to control defence spending in Japan has been offset by the evident anxiety caused by North Korea's recent testing of Taepo Dong ballistic missiles, one of which overflew Japan in what Pyongyang later claimed was a failed satellite launch. Concern is also increasing about China's growing economic, political and military strength, spurring Japan to soften its stated policy of absolute renunciation of war, adopted after the Second World War.

These concerns have prompted Japan to develop its own reconnaissance satellites. The project is assigned to a Mitsubishi Electric-led industrial team, with US industry supplying some hardware. Japan is also understood to be planning a new helicopter base at Maizuru for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) patrols over the Sea of Japan, using Sikorsky SH-60Js, and aimed at preventing North Korean submarines from entering Japanese waters.

Deliveries of the country's Mitsubishi F-2 fighter, developed with Lockheed Martin from the F-16 with an enlarged all-composite wing, a Mitsubishi Electric active phased-array radar and other Japanese avionic components, are due to begin in August. This aircraft's entry into service has been repeatedly delayed by structural cracking problems. The in-service date is 15 months later than planned.

Purchase of nine F-2s have been approved in the fiscal year 2000 budget. The programme takes up about half of all the services' procurement budget, and the air force is understood to want to shift some money from it to finance its controversial plans to buy tankers. The tanker procurement was to have been funded between this year and 2005, but the plan was killed at the last minute by politicians concerned about the acquisition of such an extended-range capability, which they felt was incompatible with Japan's stated commitment to self-defence only.

Current regional political concerns have helped revive the procurement, however, with the Boeing 767 as the front runner to meet the requirement. Such a selection would offer commonality with the Japan Air Self-Defence Force's (JASDF) four E-767 airborne warning and control systems aircraft, which, although delivered, have been in testing for two years. These should be declared operational soon.

The JASDF has also had ¥8.6 billion ($80 million) in funding approved from the forthcoming fiscal year's budget for a Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye upgrade programme, which should bring the Japanese airborne early warning aircraft up to US standards. The upgrade includes modifications to the radar, identification friend-or-foe system, displays, data and signal processors and navigation system.

A further fighter procurement could be on the cards when the JASDF begins to replace its McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms in around 2010. Meanwhile, the US Government is in talks with Tokyo to upgrade JASDF Boeing F-15s for greater interoperability with US aircraft - a programme included in the JASDF's FY2000 spending plan.

The Japan Defence Agency has cleared the procurement of 55 aircraft this year, including 27 for the JASDF, 11 for the Marine Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) and 17 for the Ground Self-Defence Force (JGSDF). The JASDF shopping list includes the F-2s, nine Kawasaki T-4 jet trainers, two Beechjet T-400 trainer/liaison aircraft, two Raytheon U-125 search and rescue (SAR)variants of the Hawker 800 business jet, two Sikorsky/ Mitsubishi UH-60J SAR helicopters and a single Boeing/KawasakiCH-47J. The two remaining JASDF procurements are unspecified primary trainer replacements for ageing Fuji T-3s, which were to be filled by Fuji T-7s. The competition for this contract, however, has been controversially reopened amid allegations of corruption.

The JMSDF is buying seven SH-60Js for the ASW role, three Beech King Air 90 trainers and one Boeing/Kawasaki OH-6DA training helicopter. The JGSDF procurement includes four more Kawasaki OH-1 combat and reconnaissance helicopters, three UH-60JA utility helicopters, seven Bell/Fuji UH-1J utilities, and two CH-47JAs, as well as one Beech King Air 350 liaison aircraft.

The ¥4.94 trillion defence budget for the coming fiscal year, beginning on 1 April, is 0.1% more than that for the current year, despite a 3.8% increase in Japan's overall national budget. The total cost of the aircraft procurements is about $2.4 billion.

Japan is also believed to be showing interest in new weapons, such as the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM beyond-visual-range missile, and precision-guided air-to-ground weapons.