The fifth most expensive army in the world is one many people don’t even realize exists. Japan has a reputation for being a pacifist and even unarmed country because its post-World War II constitution technically forbids it from having a military.
The reputation is wrong. In addition to possessing its own powerful armed forces, Tokyo is finally becoming an arms exporter … seven decades after the constitution discouraged but did not outright ban weapons sales.
Instead of an official military, Japan has what it calls “self defense forces”—an army, navy and air force trained and equipped for defense.
But “defense” is a fig leaf. In reality, Japan has one of the largest and most powerful—albeit mostly unproven—militaries in the world, with more ships than the French navy, an army larger than Germany’s and more jet fighters than the British Royal Air Force.
Japan buys a mix of imports and locally made weapons for its Self Defense Forces. Japanese industry produces world-class destroyers and submarines and some of the best armored vehicles in the world, in addition to other high-tech military hardware.
The Air Self Defense Forces have even ditched the standard American AIM-120 air-to-air missile in favor of the locally built AAM-4B, one of only two missiles in the world with a built-in electronic array homing radar, which boosts range and lethality.
But for all its industrial prowess, for nearly 70 years Tokyo hasn’t exported a single tank, ship, plane or other major weapon system.
That’s changing. Today Japan is taking steps to join the global community of high-tech arms merchants that includes the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and a dozen other advanced nations.
Selling everything but arms
Ravaged by defeat in World War II, Japan became a pacifistic country. Not only is pacifism formally enshrined in the constitution, it has become part of the national mindset. Arms exports violate the spirit of pacifism, making weapons sales abroad politically unthinkable.
But there’s actually nothing in the constitution that explicitly bans arms exports. The ban is a policy decision—and Japan’s leaders could reverse it in a matter of days, if they wanted to. There have always been at least a few politicians quietly willing to overturn the ban, especially during an economic slump.
For decades, Japanese industry has practically salivated at the thought of selling weapons abroad—and for good reason. Japan has built its reputation on high-tech, affordable cars, quality consumer goods and shipbuilding. Japanese weapons could prove very popular … and lucrative.
In the late 1980s, a secret memo circulated among Japanese defense contractors predicting that if the export ban ended, Japan would “capture 45 percent of the world tank and self-propelled artillery market, 40 percent of military electronic sales, and 60 percent of naval ship construction.”
The numbers were optimistic but hinted at the riches Japanese companies believed were just out of their collective grasp. Three decades after the memo, industry’s dream of arms exports are finally becoming reality.
Blasting open the export ban
The gradual reversal of the sales prohibition started with a missile. For years, Japan and the United States have been jointly developing the latest version of a sea-launched anti-ballistic missile interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIA.
The SM-3 is part of both countries’ plans to shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles. But Washington complained that since Tokyo had a hand in funding the missile’s development, the U.S. could not export it without violating Japanese regulations.
After much consideration, in 2011 the government of then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda decided to ease the regulations to allow sales of weapons produced as part of bilateral defense agreements.
The SM-3 blasted apart Japan’s export ban, clearing the way for Tokyo to forge broad bilateral defense agreements with other countries—the agreements providing cover for Japanese arms sales.
Now Tokyo has is cutting defense deals with a number of Asian and European powers. A sale of 15 US-2 seaplanes to India is imminent and will be Japan’s first-ever major arms export.
True, the flying boats don’t have weapons and won’t even include military radio transponders, but they are warplanes. It’s a landmark deal that, like the missile agreement, sets the stage for future sales.
In July 2013, Japan and the United Kingdom agreed to cooperate on nuclear, biological and chemical warfare research. Just last month, Tokyo and Paris signed a deal for the possible joint development of military equipment, although the two countries haven’t decided which weapons to work on.
Japan is also considering sharing technology from its highly successful Soryu-class diesel submarines with Australia, which is struggling to build its own subs.
Turkey has expressed interest in the 1,200-horsepower diesel engine that powers Japan’s latest tank, the Type 10. Given Turkey’s domestic unrest and poor human rights record, the deal could face internal opposition in Japan. But it’s indicative of the growing interest in Japanese arms.
Friends and competitors
Japan’s entry will no doubt shake up the world defense market. If Japan succeeds in exporting large number of armored vehicles, military electronics and warships, it will certainly eat someone’s profits—and that someone could be the United States.
The U.S. has positioned itself at the ultra high end of defense technology, producing systems its wealthiest allies can barely afford. What would happen if another country with global marketing experience and a reputation for quality tech decided to seize the middle ground, producing reliable weapons at a small fraction of the cost of American ones?
Not everyone can afford a Cadillac—many prefer the cost effectiveness of a Toyota. Will two allies become competitors in the world arms market?
It’s certainly not unprecedented. Germany, France and the U.K., among others, are major arms exporters and strong U.S. allies. But Japan is unique among America’s friends in that Tokyo still largely relies on U.S. forces—some based in Japan—for many basic military tasks.
It’s hard to say how the U.S.-Japanese alliance might change as Tokyo starts selling weapons abroad, potentially to the detriment of American profits.