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Japan’s Emerging Defense Export Industry

 Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Kobe Shipyard & Machinery Works of Kobe Harbor in Kobe, Hyogo prefecture, Japan in 2006. via Wikipedia

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Kobe Shipyard & Machinery Works of Kobe Harbor in Kobe, Hyogo prefecture, Japan in 2006. via Wikipedia

The recent relaxation of Tokyo’s ban on arms exports has introduced Japan as a budding player in the international arms market. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given the go-ahead for Japanese firms to compete internationally for arms contracts.

The entry of Japan into the international arms bazaar could shift the balance of power in the Pacific, equipping Asian navies and air forces with affordable, technologically advanced ships and aircraft. It will also upset the status quo among defense exporters, as Japan will carve a niche among American, Chinese, European and Russian firms.

China is unhappy with the export loosening process. An editorial published in PLA Daily warned Southeast Asian countries that Japan was “going all out to break [its] Pacifist Constitution,” and that Japanese arms exports to the region would “deteriorate economic conditions and undermine social stability.”

Redefinition of Policy

 Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert meets with the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe on May 26, 2014. US Navy Photo

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert meets with the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe on May 26, 2014. US Navy Photo

Japanese military equipment—particularly in the areas of missiles, ships, and armored vehicles —have always been technologically competitive with their Western counterparts. Despite that, Japan has for decades refused to sell any weapons or other military equipment.

Japan’s official policy has been the so-called “Three Principles on Arms Exports,” which barred exports to communist countries, those under a U.N. arms embargo, and those “involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts.”

Although the export of arms to friendly countries should be considered allowable under the three principles, arms exports have always been seen as against the spirit of Japan’s pacifist political stance. The new stance is a more literal, liberal reinterpretation of that policy that allows arms exports to countries generally friendly to Japan.

The watershed moment for Japan was the agreement in 2014 that SM-3 Block IIA ballistic missile interceptor technology, partially funded by Tokyo, could be exported by the United States to a third party. Once the Abe administration cleared that hurdle, it acted quickly to seal weapons deals overseas.


Royal Australian Navy Collins-class submarine HMAS Sheean (SSG-77) near the Sydney Opera House. RAN Photo

Royal Australian Navy Collins-class submarine HMAS Sheean (SSG-77) near the Sydney Opera House. RAN Photo

The Royal Australian Navy’s current fleet of six Collins-class diesel electric submarines is projected to begin aging out beginning in 2026, and a search is under way for a replacement.

The Collins, built by Australia Submarine Corporation, suffered from construction delays, quality control problems, and persistent reliability issues. The submarine class was also very expensive, costing around $1 billion Australian dollars each.

The Collins replacement program has proven to be politically contentious, not only over the projected pricetag of $50 billion, but also the source. The government of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is said to currently favor Japan’s Soryu-class diesel electric submarines over an indigenous design.

Built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Shipbuilding Corporation at Kobe, Japan, the Soryu class is Japan’s most advanced diesel electric submarine. Displacing more than 4,000 tons submerged, each is equipped with six bow-mounted 533mm torpedo tubes for launching Type 89 torpedoes or Harpoon missiles. Of particular note is the Sterling air-independent propulsion system, which allows the Soryu class to stay submerged for prolonged periods.

A major advantage of the Soryu class is that it is a proven design, with seven submarines completed and at least 10 projected. The class would also be affordable: Japan currently pays approximately 60 billion yen per Soryu sub, or $647 million (Australian) at current exchange rates. A fleet of 12 Soryus would theoretically cost $7.7 billion, although that does not factor in other costs, including training, support and new maintenance equipment and facilities.

The prospect of a foreign-built submarine and the subsequent loss of manufacturing jobs has alarmed Australian industry. Domestic pressure on this front means that even if the Soryu class is chosen, Australia may press for at least partial, if not full domestic production.

An Australian submarine deal would likely be Japan’s first major arms transaction of the postwar era. As such, although Japan’s arms export policies have been loosened enough to propose such a deal, regulatory and procedural hurdles on Tokyo’s end could delay a formal deal.


ShinMaywa US-2. Image via Wikipedia

ShinMaywa US-2. Image via Wikipedia

India has relied heavily on Russia for recent naval construction projects, with repeated delays and cost overruns. The latest project, the refitting of the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya, was delayed five years and incurred $1.3 billion in cost overruns.

In mid-January India invited Japan to bid for the Project-India-75 program, an $8.1 billion (U.S.) project to purchase six diesel electric attack submarines. India is interested in Japan’s Soryu class, but has signaled it wants the submarines to be built in India. India recently completed INS Arihant, first in a class of indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

Japan and India are also in final talks regarding the ShinMaywa US-2 seaplane. A four-engine seaplane with an operational range of 4,700 kilometers, the US-2 would perform patrol, search and rescue, and replenishment duties in the Indian Ocean. The deal is worth an estimated $1.65 billion (U.S.).

Under the terms of the deal Japan would deliver two completed seaplanes and collaborate with a local Indian aviation firm on another ten airframes.


Undated photo of Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force submarine Soryu (SS-501)

Undated photo of Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force submarine Soryu (SS-501)

Thailand’s last submarine was retired from service in 1951. Thailand has announced its intention to rebuild a submarine fleet, and has built an extensive submarine fleet headquarters and training facility in anticipation of procurement.

According to The Diplomat, Thailand is expected to include funds for the procurement of 2 or 3 submarines in its 2016 defense budget. China has offered Bangkok Yuan-class diesel-electric subs, and in mid-January, Russia offered Kilo-class submarines. Another contender is reportedly the South Korean Chang Bogo class, at $330 million (U.S.) apiece.

This is yet another market in which the Soryu class could become a contender. Although more advanced than their competitors, Japanese submarines would be up to 50 percent more expensive than South Korean or Russian designs. The May 2014 military coup has slowed economic growth, and more affordable submarines may be more desirable.

Finally, last years’s military coup may complicate a deal with Japan, which may not be willing to sell weapons to the junta ruling Thailand.

Coincidentally, Thailand’s last submarine force, the four submarines of the Matchanu class, were built by Mitsubishi of Japan in the late 1930s.


An undated Kawasaki P-1 mairtime patrol aircraft.

An undated Kawasaki P-1 mairtime patrol aircraft.

In the wake of its standoff with China over the Haiyang Shiyou oil rig, Vietnam has been seeking to bolster its maritime patrol and surveillance capabilities. Vietnam has a coastline as long as the Eastern Seaboard, and long-range maritime patrol aircraft are now on on the country’s shopping list.

Hanoi is currently in talks with the United States to purchase an unknown number of P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Although this would vastly extend Vietnam’s maritime surveillance capabilities, the aircraft are old and Washington is refusing to sell weapons for them. This would limit their usefulness as a patrol aircraft and make it unable to actively defend Vietnamese waters.

The P-3Cs, if purchased, could serve as a stopgap measure. However if Vietnam wants modern MPAs armed with anti-submarine and anti-ship weapons, it might consider the Kawasaki P-1.

An entirely new design, the P-1 maritime patrol aircraft will replace the P-3C in Japanese service. The P-1 has a range of 8,000 kilometers, a sensor suite advanced surveillance and tracking systems, an AESA radar and a Magnetic Anomaly Detection system. It can carry a wide variety of weapons including anti-submarine torpedoes, mines, and anti-ship missiles.


Indonesia and Japan are expected to soon sign a defense cooperation treaty, with arms sales proposals to follow. According to The Jakarta Post, Japan is expected to offer “amphibious aircraft and early warning system technology.”

The amphibious aircraft referenced would be the US-2 seaplane, while the “early warning system technology” may be the anti-stealth radar currently under development in Japan.

United Kingdom

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has publicly suggested that the Kawasaki P-1 would be a suitable replacement for the United Kingdom’s cancelled Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. This would be the first sale of Japanese arms outside of the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.K. sought to procure nine Nimrod aircraft in the late 2000s, but the contract was canceled in 2010 because of cost overruns. London currently has no fixed wing maritime patrol / anti-submarine warfare capability.

Although a capable aircraft, the P-1 would likely be the underdog to the American Boeing P-8 Poseidon. Nevertheless, as one observer pointed out, if the U.K. does seriously consider the P-1 it will raise the international profile of the aircraft in particular and the Japanese defense industry in general.

  • Rob C.

    Interesting developments, Japan is offering some significantly better products to these countries in comparison to stagnant defense industries else where in the world. Kawasaki P-1 is close match to the P-3 than P-8 is, considering it has a MAD and the P-8 doesn’t. Which is a big difference.

    While rest of the world been buying German, Spanish or Russian submarines, Japan kept to themselves and kept building their own design. US and the UK aren’t buying diesel submarines, thus don’t have industry to offer to sell them. Soryu maybe best fit for nations like Austrialia who’s domestic industry is unreliable, which is a same.

    Maybe this emergence of Japan as Exporter, will convince the US Congress try give it’s military more broader approach in their purchases while not being hamstring by politics and looming and desperate us base defense industries who need innovate better

    • Matthew

      Soryu would be worst fit for nation like Australia. Its a large submarine, But beyond that that is all it has going for it. It doesn’t have the range, The interior is made for a smaller person (Average Japanese smaller then average Aussie), and apparently lacks in generating power.

      The Soryu cant even make it from their closest sea port to Darwin and back where as the Collins can go from Darwin to Vladivostok, Loiter for a few weeks and return all with out resupply.

      The Soryu is simply a big shiny boat that kept very secret so a lot are assuming it is a great submarine. As to the cost aspects Japan has offered 12 of them built in Japan for $25 billion, Where as France, Germany and Sweded have all said they could build the boats in Australia for $20 – $25 billion for 12.. And their boats actually have the room and range that we need.

      • Secundius

        @ Matthew.

        Are you sure about that, the Latest Soryu class Submarine. Is equipped with the Stirling AIP (Air-Independent Propulsion) system which allow the submarine to cruise under-water for up too 6-weeks without snorkeling…

        • Matthew

          Qouted range of 6,100nm miles, And of all people to have been around them all have said that it it’s range is far below that of the Collins class.

          Im inclined to believe such number’s as realistically Japan since WWII has not been a nation that has had an interest in long range operations, Their main concern in China who is right on their door step.

          While the AIP is quite capable all other aspect’s seem to be a step back. With the AIP being Swedish tech a lot in Australia are struggling to see what it is Japan has that is so good to make such a big risk, They wont share any intel on the boats with us and they have not taken part in any war games for which one could get a rough indication on how good they are.

          The only ones in Australia pushing for the Japanese option are the politicions, The military want’s either a European option or an evolved Collins class as they know what those boats can do, They know the nations involved are well set up for such a program (Japan has zero experience). All too often the government over rules the ADF on what they want.. (They purchased less capable Spanish destroyers, Navy wanted Burkes, They purchased NF90 Helicopters, The Army wanted new Black Hawks [NF90 first flew in mid 90’s, Not expected to be fully operationally until at minimum 2019] which cost way more $50m vs $20m give or take), On occasion the government may make a good choice but all too often the put politics first when it comes to major military acquisitions.

          • Secundius

            @ Matthew.

            Not quite, The 148-years old Stirling AIP Technology was first use in 1867 by Narcis Monturiol I Estarriol of Spain…

          • Matthew

            Oh I know that AIP has been around for a long time however the actual AIP design used in the Soryu is Swedish, Just built in Japan under license. There are also a number of other AIP designs and more still on the drawing boards.

    • Scooter2000

      FYI- The MAD is available on the P-8 as Indian examples (P-8I) have it….

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  • olesalt

    A pragmatic move by Japan that will boost its economy & defence manufacturing capabilities. The Japanese have a tradition & long time experience in manufacturing warships (carriers included – now they call them helicopter “destroyers”), submarines, fighter aircraft (the Zeroes during WW II), tanks etc.

    • jack

      Everyone knows Japan has got solid tech. But affordable, maybe only to Aussies. Most Asian nations simply don’t have the funds, Japan also isnt going to give its goods & technical knowledge away, how Japan will take market share when the market is saturated with cheap suppliers is a big question mark. I see Japan filling a small niche but not much else, unless the yen weakens under 150 which is very unlikely.

  • publius_maximus_III

    I think it’s a good thing, as long as it’s being carried out as the will of the Japanese people, and not the will of the Emperor.

    • Steve Skubinna

      “The will of the Emperor” hasn’t been a factor in Japan for over a century. The last time the Emperor took an active role was in ordering the surrender in WWII.

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  • Secundius

    The problem with the Kawasaki P-1, is that it cost’s EIGHT TIMES that of the Boeing P-8 Poseidon. Their probably not going to be that many WILLING buyer’s…