As India and China display their aerial might, the US continues to operate the world’s strongest air force led by the mighty F-22 Raptors, F-35 jets and an array of other battle-tested aircraft like F-15EX, F-16s, and many more.
The question is — which nation has or could have the 2nd strongest airforce in the entire world and the most powerful in Asia?
Japan is set to become the second-largest operator of Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters after the US. The country is also developing a sixth-generation fighter plane. With all this, Japan is growing into a formidable air power in Asia, that could surpass both China and India.
Japan is one of the largest military spenders in the Indo-Pacific region and ranks ninth in global military spending ($49.1 billion), according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
The country is ranked 5th, just behind India (4) and China (3) in the 2021 Global Firepower ranking that factors in military might, financial and logistical capability as well as geography.
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The US has a significant imprint on Japan’s military arsenal since the Japanese defense forces have a security alliance with the Americans under the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty 1960.
The 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) lay down Japan’s defense policy for the next five years.
Japan’s Air Force
The Japanese Air Force, known as the Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF), came into existence after the 1954 Self-Defenses Forces Act.
Japan’s first indigenous combat aircraft was the F-1, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) in the 1970s. The F-2 ‘Viper Zero’ is another homegrown jet, based on the design of the US Lockheed Martin F-16.
A multirole, single-engine jet, the F-2 is armed with short to medium-range air-to-air and anti-ship missiles.
The visible changes to the F-2 design include a 25% increase in wing area, installation of a brake parachute and an adapted fuselage along with an electronic warfare suite developed by Mitsubishi Electric and multi-function displays (MFDs) built by Yokogawa, a Japan-based company.
Mitsubishi also has the license to produce the US F-15 Eagle, an air superiority fighter plane making Japan the only country to build an indigenous version of the American jet — the F-15J.
In addition, less than 50 F-4 Phantom IIs, the iconic Cold War fighter jet used in the Vietnam war, still remain in service, as reported by National Interest.
Japan is in the process of acquiring a record number of the fifth-generation stealth F-35 jets, one of the most advanced jets in the world, to replace its aging fleet of F-4.
Last July, Washington approved the whopping purchase of 105 F-35 joint striker fighters, including a combination of F-35A and F-35B.
The $23 billion deal will make Japan the largest foreign customer of F-35s and the second largest operator — 147 stealth jets — after the US. The US Air Force is the biggest customer of the Lockheed Martin F-35, accounting for 70 percent of the total 2,443 aircraft in the Pentagon’s plans.
Japan is planning to deploy four F-35As to the Komatsu base in the Sea of Japan by 2025, in light of repeated Chinese and Russian incursions into its airspace, according to The Japan Times.
In December 2020, Nikkei Asia published details of Japan’s $48 billion ambitious program to develop a sixth-generation F-X stealth fighter jet, to stay in the race with the US, China and Europe.
Its production will start by 2031 and deployment by 2035 to replace the country’s F-2 fleet.
The F-X will be a twin-engine fighter jet with advanced radars. It will have remote drone control and electromagnetic warfare capabilities along with heatshields and air-to-air missiles.
Japan’s Growing Military Might
The EurAsian Times earlier reported Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet has approved a record-high $51.7 billion (5.34 trillion yen) military budget for the fiscal year 2021-22, an increase of 1% from the previous year.
In the 2020 Asia Power Index, released by Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Japan is ranked 3rd out of 26 countries in the region with the greatest gain in defense network (+2.5), reflecting progress in its regional defense diplomacy.
Japan is above China and India in the sub-category of a defense network that acts as “force multipliers of military capabilities,” as defined by the index.
Last year, Japan landed its first arms export deal, seven years after the industry lifted a ban on the sale of weapons. The Philippines signed a $103.5 million contract to purchase advanced air surveillance radars.
The radars are said to be used to monitor the Chinese activity in the South China Sea, along the maritime boundaries of the Philippines.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi has said that the security of Taiwan is directly linked with that of Japan, as tensions around the island build up and its defenses are overshadowed by China’s military might.https://t.co/OAB2VBuk21
— BloombergQuint (@BloombergQuint) June 26, 2021
A shift is visible in Japan’s Taiwan policy as the country joins the diplomatic bandwagon to counter China’s aggressive policies. Japan, which officially recognized the ‘One-China Policy’ in 1972, has now stood for the self-ruled island nation.
Japan’s Defense Minister Nubuo Kishi noted that it was necessary to “wake up” to Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan, referring to the island as a “red line”, which is detrimental to Japan’s security, as reported by Taipei Times. To maintain the balance of power amid a growing and assertive China, Japan is revamping its military statecraft, one step at a time.
Nitin J Ticku a strategic expert with the EurAsian Times said that China may have the biggest air force in Asia or the second biggest in the world, but it is Japan that is slowly and steadily emerging as a dominant airpower. China or even India may have the numbers, but Tokyo with US assistance holds the technological edge just like Israel does in the Middle-East.