TOKYO -- More than 40% of key defense hardware that Japan plans to introduce by the end of fiscal 2018 has not been fully budgeted for, and even some that has is behind schedule for deployment, leaving potentially serious gaps in this country's security capabilities.
The delays come even as Japan's defense spending climbs to new heights. The fiscal 2018 budget proposal approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government in December seeks a record 5.19 trillion yen ($45.8 billion) for defense, a 1.3% year-on-year increase.
Of the 23 major procurement items identified in Japan's current five-year defense program, only 13 were fully funded as of the fiscal 2018 draft budget. These include two destroyers fitted with the Aegis missile interceptor system and 28 F-35A stealth fighters.
On the other 10, appropriations have fallen short. While the fiscal 2014-18 procurement plan calls for 10 C-2 transport planes, contractor Kawasaki Heavy Industries is running about five years behind schedule. Funds have been budgeted for only seven of the planes so far. A dearth of C-2s, used to carry combat vehicles and midsize helicopters in addition to personnel, could hinder Japan's efforts to defend outlying islands and respond to disasters.
Only 20 of the 26 F-15 fighters marked for modernization in the defense program have been budgeted for. That is because the cost of the upgrades has swelled to around 5 billion yen apiece, more than twice the initial estimate. And not one of the nine multipurpose helicopters planned for has been acquired, amid controversy over whether the selection process was conducted fairly.
Abe's government is prepared to roll over unfinished items to the next medium-term defense plan for fiscal 2019 through 2023. But some worry about what the failure to complete the current plan means. "The medium-term plan identifies equipment essential for protecting Japan and carries the weight of a cabinet decision," said Koichi Furusho, a former chief of staff for the Maritime Self-Defense Force. "Failing to implement it as planned could leave gaps in Japan's defense."
Even some procurements that have been fully funded are encountering problems. An American unit of U.K.-based BAE Systems is experiencing delays in the production of amphibious vehicles that will be used by a Japanese rapid deployment brigade meant to defend outlying islands. The company was supposed to deliver 30 of the vehicles at the end of November 2017. But only seven are now expected to be ready by the time the new unit starts up in March.
Major delays are also expected as the government moves to station Osprey aircraft at the civilian-use Saga Airport in southwestern Japan. Lingering opposition from the local government and fishing industry has kept the national government from acquiring the necessary land. While the Defense Ministry had planned to base the vertical-takeoff aircraft -- which have caused controversy elsewhere in Japan, notably in Okinawa -- at the airport starting in fiscal 2019, the move is likely to be pushed back to fiscal 2022 or later.
When the cabinet approved the current defense plan at the end of 2013, costs were seen totaling around 23.97 trillion yen over the five years. But the fiscal 2018 draft budget brings that total above 25 trillion yen, according to the ministry.
Officials there insist that the tally comes to around 23.95 trillion yen when foreign exchange factors and price growth are stripped out, placing it within the estimated range. But that is hardly to its credit, given that the figure covers only 60% or so of planned acquisitions. The ministry blames rising development and other costs for the shortfall, though confirming this will require examining negotiations between the ministry and manufacturers.
Japan faces the toughest security environment it has seen in the postwar era, Abe told a news conference Thursday. "We will strengthen the defense capabilities that we truly need to protect the people, not simply follow what has been done in the past," the prime minister said. Abe's government is ready to pack its next defense plan, due out at the end of 2018, with equipment meant to counter North Korea's nuclear and missile development and China's maritime expansion.