Samuel King Jr./U.S. Air Force
Tokyo is expected to announce Friday that it will buy America's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the clearest statement yet that Japan will not be left behind in Asia's arms race. If reports ahead of the announcement are true, it also may help spur the creation of a bloc of liberal Asian states with the most advanced airpower capabilities that can serve to maintain stability in an increasingly strained Indo-Pacific region."An F-35 purchase would help lay the groundwork for a cooperative airpower alliance of liberal states flying the same plane, training together and operating jointly."
An F-35 purchase would help lay the groundwork for a cooperative airpower alliance of liberal states flying the same plane, training together and operating jointly. In addition to Japan, Australia has committed to buying up to 100 F-35s, and Canada another 65. Singapore is a Security Cooperative Participant in the F-35 program and South Korea is another likely customer. Some industry observers say India may sign up for F-35s later on. With only 186 U.S. F-22s available—currently the most advanced fighter in the world—the need for a large and credible force of F-35s flown by allies is all the more important.
Most Asian nations admit keeping stability in their region is far more difficult without Japan's help. But for Tokyo to lead it will have to be prepared and committed. By some measures, Japan is still making up ground from its strategic withdrawal from many Asian security matters after former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi left office in 2006. A string of five failed premiers after him led to stagnation in defense reform and political silence on the country's key security interests. That began to change a year ago with the release of a new national security strategy that identifies China as a destabilizing element and a potential security threat to Japan's southwestern island territories.
The most important reason for Japan to fly this new stealth fighter is to deter increasingly reckless and aggressive behavior on the part of its closest neighbors, who have designs on controlling the air in East Asia. If Japan were to start receiving the F-35 around 2018 or so, it would drastically change the environment for Chinese and Russian pilots. They would be up against a putatively far superior fighter jet they could not see and whose integrated radar and avionics would be a generation ahead.
Control of the air around Japan's territories would be crucial in any conflict. Current Chinese fighter jets, such as the J-11, can reach almost all Japanese territory from the continent and are working toward providing an air umbrella over much of the East and South China Seas. The same goes for Russia, which is busy building up its advanced air assets in the disputed Kurile Islands north of Hokkaido and which has been probing near Japanese airspace with bombers over the past months.
The Chinese are motivated to control or break through the chain of islands stretching from Taiwan up to Japan's southern-most home island of Kyushu. They have long identified these as the "first island chain"—a barrier to Chinese access to the western Pacific Ocean and a means of keeping Chinese ships bottled up in the East China Sea
That's why Japan's purchase, in conjunction with U.S. Air Force and Navy F-35s when they arrive, will improve the ability to control the Pacific air domain. The question is whether Japan's 40 F-35s will be enough to relieve pressure on American limited advanced fighters, which are needed to combat dangers around the world.
That's why the allies cannot rest here. Japan needs to fully rescind its ban on arms exports so that it can participate in more joint development with the U.S. The F-35 deal as reported in Japanese media allows Japan to be involved in some production of parts as well as final assembly of the planes it will purchase.
Given the need to respond to changing conditions in Japan's extreme north and south, Tokyo will need to consider buying more planes in the future. A second and related worry is whether the price tag of approximately $5 billion will prove too high for a nation struggling with record public debt and high reconstruction costs after the March earthquake and tsunami. Any further delay in the F-35 program or a jump in costs could put Japan's purchase at risk.
Regardless of the costs, however, this is a moment for Japan's leaders to commit to being a pillar of the stability that all Asian nations seek. With the Philippines recently asking Japan to play a larger role in maritime security in the South China Sea and the U.S.'s so-called "pivot" to Asia, Tokyo has a unique opportunity to build on its long-standing relationship with Washington, create new working ties with Southeast Asian states and ensure that it can protect its interests in the air and waters of Asia.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.