Small Wars

This Week at War: Japan Gets Tough

Did this week's confrontation at sea with China signal a more aggressive stance from Tokyo?

Japan and China go fishing for trouble

A seemingly minor maritime incident last week -- a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese coast guard vessels -- is quickly turning into a significant diplomatic crisis. What remains to be seen is whether the ensuing diplomatic standoff will add to the region's growing concerns over China and whether Japan's surprising obstinacy over this incident foreshadows a more hawkish Japanese defense policy.

On Sept. 9, during a seasonal uptick in the number of Chinese fishing boats near the disputed, uninhabited, and Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese patrol boats. According to officials in Tokyo, the fishing boat refused orders to submit to an inspection and to leave the area. After an initial investigation, the Japanese government released the boat and the crew. But it retained custody of the boat's captain, turning him over to prosecutors for trial. A Japanese judge has given prosecutors until Sept. 19 to file charges against him.

What started as a a minor scuffle has escalated. Over the past week, the Chinese government has summoned Japan's ambassador five times. China delayed a senior parliamentarian's visit to Japan and postponed talks over natural gas exploration in the East China Sea. The customary annual meeting between the Chinese premier and the Japanese prime minister at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York next week has not been scheduled. Meanwhile, Japan's transport minister appeared at the nearby coast guard base to praise the crews for their capture of the captain. The Japanese embassy in Beijing warned Japanese citizens in China to lay low. Finally, anti-Japanese activists from both China and Taiwan -- which both claim the Senkaku Islands -- formed flotillas to sail to the barren rocks.

Just as the fishing boat incident began to boil, Japan's defense ministry released its annual white paper on defense policy. This year's report included a particularly detailed accounting of recent Chinese air and naval incursions near Japan-claimed territory. The white paper follows the recent diplomatic clash at the July ASEAN meeting in Hanoi over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In spite of the white paper's much more explicit description of China's growing military assertiveness, the report did not call for any material changes in Japan's defense program. The report made note of continuing declines in Japan's defense spending and manpower levels.

It is hard to imagine a worse time for Japan's government to contemplate a controversial change to its defense policy. Its fiscal outlook and floundering economy are as bad as any in the developed world. Recent prime ministers have been lucky to last a year in office. And Japan's dispute with the United States over bases on Okinawa remains unresolved.

All of which makes the Japanese government's refusal to release the Chinese fishing captain all the more remarkable. Against all expectations, someone in Tokyo has decided to stand up to Beijing. Could the Japanese government be making a case to the public for a more hawkish defense policy? Policymakers in the region are no doubt wondering what the consequences of this standoff will be.

How to pay for a new Air Force bomber

This week, the Air Force made a loud public case for why the Pentagon should invest in a new long-range bomber. At an Air Force Association conference, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz both pitched the Air Force's vision for new long-range strike platforms to replace the aging assortment of B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers that the Air Force currently relies on. On the same day that Schwartz spoke, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a Washington defense think tank, rolled out its own study of the long-range strike issue. The challenge for the Air Force is to explain why, in an era seemingly dominated by small wars against minimally armed insurgents, a high-tech and expensive long-range bomber program is remotely relevant.

Schwartz and the CSBA report repeated the concern explained in this year's Quadrennial Defense Review over the growing ability of potential adversaries such as China and Iran to use modern air defense missiles, anti-ship missiles, and quiet submarines to threaten many of the U.S. military's aircraft and ships. U.S. airpower is currently structured for and accustomed to operating in completely uncontested airspace and from nearby airbases and aircraft carriers within the range of short-range tactical aircraft. Should adversary submarines and missiles push U.S. aircraft carriers far away from shore, should political problems or missile attacks close nearby tactical airbases, orshould U.S. aircraft face the latest generation Russian surface-to-air missile defenses, the United States has a grand total of 18 airplanes -- its long-range B-2 bombers -- that would be useful.

The CSBA report was thorough in its analysis of why the United States will need a new long-range, stealthy, penetrating bomber for the scenario just described. But the report missed an opportunity to discuss the contribution a stealthy long-range aircraft could make to small irregular wars. As an example, U.S. and partner forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere are highly reliant on the overhead observation provided by Predator drones and other tactical aircraft. These patrolling aircraft observe the movements of enemy leaders, thwart roadside bomb crews, monitor radio traffic, and perform other intelligence-gathering missions.

They are able to perform these missions because they operate in uncontested airspace. U.S. military planners should not assume that this will always be the case, even against seemingly lightly-armed insurgent adversaries. The arrival of the next generation of man-portable surface-to-air missile capable of threatening Predators and other patrol aircraft could threaten a huge advantage currently enjoyed by U.S. forces. Alternatively, U.S. planners should not rule out the possibility of long-range surface-to-air missile systems operating against U.S. aircraft from territory the U.S. cannot, due to political constraints, attack. A new stealthy long-range bomber could provide the intelligence and strike support in such an irregular warfare scenario that the non-stealthy Predator and its ilk could not.

The CSBA report estimates that the Air Force could buy 100 new stealth bombers for $46 billion, including research and development costs. These aircraft would be designed to operate with crews or as unmanned drones. The report deems the technological risk of the program to be low; the new aircraft would use major sub-systems currently used on F-15, F-18, F-35, B-2, and even Boeing 737 airliners that have already been developed and proven.

With defense spending capped or declining, where would $46 billion come from? According to the GAO's analysis of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the Air Force could trade 4.4 F-35s for one new bomber. The U.S. military currently plans to buy 2,443 F-35s over the next 25 years. Given the ancient vintage of the current bomber force, the lack of balance in the aircraft inventory, the looming threats to overseas bases and access, and the versatility of long-range aircraft, the value of 100 new bombers would seem to greatly exceed the marginal utility of the final 443 F-35s the Pentagon plans to buy. If budget hawks are looking to trim $46 billion, that's where they should find it.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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