Faced with a growing People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) naval capacity and maritime presence in waters of the East China Sea, Japan’s government plans to accelerate, alter and expand a warship building project.
Rather than continuing with a build rate of one new 5,000-ton destroyer per year, a decision was reached to shift to construction of two smaller 3,000-ton destroyers per year beginning with the launch of the fiscal year in April 2018. This will allow for an expansion of the class from four to eight ships, thus providing the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) with greater fleet capacity with which to counter the growing naval arm of the PLAN.
The disparity in build rate and naval growth between Japan and China may be easily discerned simply by taking a look back to last year. During the course of 2016, the PLAN launched three 7,500-ton Type 052D destroyers and two 4,000-ton Type 054A frigates, along with various other vessel types. Meanwhile, in terms of major surface combatants Japan put to launch just a lone 5,100-ton Asahi-class destroyer.
Despite the inherent differences in strategic security and naval force structure approaches that make such splits somewhat understandable, the growing gap is nonetheless troublesome for an island nation such as Japan that is dependent upon sea lines of communication. With China escalating its maritime modernization process – resulting in both increased PLAN capacity and improved PLAN quality/capability – the need for Japan to address air and sea deterrent capabilities to defend its shipping lanes, remote island territories, and strategic infrastructure is obvious.
The advantages of the revamped shipbuilding approach are increased capacity for the JMSDF, a faster build rate (beneficial to both the JMSDF’s growing capacity needs and local industry), and less-costly vessels, which means less strain on defense budgets that remain at, or slightly below, 1 percent of GDP. Despite the smaller size and cheaper cost, the new ships are still expected to feature core mission requirements such as minesweeping and anti-submarine capability.
At present, the JMSDF does feature excellent fighting capability in the forms of the Soryu class submarines, the Kongo and Improved Kongo (also referred to as Atago) class destroyers equipped with AEGIS air warfare systems, and the two 19,000-ton Hyuga-class amphibious-support/helicopter-carrying warships. Still, there remains a requirement for more destroyers and frigates under Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines.
By altering its approach, Japan will have an increased maritime presence featuring smaller – but still capable – ships, but at a lower cost and with a faster in-service timeframe. This will allow for ships to go to port for maintenance without losing as much capacity at sea as would have occurred under the prior approach.
While Japan’s JMSDF will never match the PLAN in terms of number of surface flotillas and warship quantity, it should still feature enough qualitative capabilities and capacity to curb Chinese incentive to test it along disputed points such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The willingness to re-examine and/or alter the nation’s maritime modernization approach signals that Japan’s leadership grasps this fundamental strategic concept.