Japan aims to enhance its missile arsenal with interchangeable warheads, a likely asymmetric response to China’s growing fighter fleet and Japan’s current airpower limitations.
This week, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Japan is developing a cruise missile that can be equipped with interchangeable reconnaissance, electronic warfare (EW) and conventional warheads.
The report claims that launching different types of missiles in one attack can improve accuracy, thereby increasing deterrence.
Yomiuri Shimbun mentions Japan could launch a reconnaissance warhead with a high-performance camera to determine the enemy’s position, followed by an EW missile to disable enemy radar and other sensors, after which a conventionally-armed missile would deliver the lethal strike.
The same report notes that the new missiles are intended to destroy enemy vessels passing through the Nansei Islands spanning Kyushu and Okinawa Prefecture.
It also says that the new missiles are expected to be used against enemy missile launch sites, giving Japan counterstrike capability in line with its 2022 National Security Strategy.
Asia Times has reported on Japan’s plans to deploy 1,000 upgraded cruise missiles by 2026 to improve its counterstrike capabilities against China. Japan will deploy these missiles from ships, fighters and mobile launchers on its Southwest Islands and Kyushu.
These developments are likely driven by the limitations of Japan’s airpower against China’s recent advancements. Tokyo may also be seeking to broaden the capabilities of its planned missile arsenal to make up for its fighter fleet’s deficiencies.
In a 2019 Foreign Policy article, David Deptula argues that Japan must focus on military investments in airpower that would give it an asymmetric advantage vis-a-vis China. In that view, long-range missiles can substitute combat aircraft in terms of power projection and precision strikes.
However, at the same time, missiles have limited operational flexibility while fighter aircraft have superior situational awareness, as their pilots can adapt on the fly to fast-changing combat situations.
Also, commanders could order fighter aircraft to reconnoiter enemy territory, attack ground targets, perform combat air patrols and return to base for more sorties. Such mission flexibility is not possible with mere missiles.
Furthermore, Deptula notes that replacing Japan’s aging 4th generation F-2 and F-15s with new-build units is not a feasible option, as China can field more advanced aircraft such as the J-20 and FC-31 5th generation fighters.
Moreover, Deptula and other writers note in a March 2020 article in Air and Space Forces Magazine that Japan’s partnership with European firms might not deliver the next-generation aircraft it wants within its projected timeframe and price point, as Europe does not currently have assembly lines for 5th and 6th generation aircraft.
China may also have the upper hand regarding the quantity and production of combat aircraft. As noted by the November 2022 US Department of Defense China Military Power Report, China’s air force and naval aviation is the largest aviation force in Asia and the third largest in the world with 2,800 aircraft, of which 2,250 are combat aircraft.
Of China’s combat aircraft, Insider notes in a December 2021 article that the country has 1,800 fighters, including 800 4th generation planes. Against China’s fighter force, Japan can field 244 fighters, as noted by a 2023 report by Flight International.
In addition, China has ramped up the production of its top-of-the-line fighters. In November 2022, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that China is using pulsed production lines to speed up the manufacturing of its J-20 fighter aircraft.
China had an estimated 140 J-20 units at the time of the report and had at least 200 jets to counter increasing US deployments of F-35s in Asia.
In contrast to China’s increasing J-20 fighter strength, the US stopped F-22 production in 2011, with just 186 fighters delivered. At the same time, Anthony Capaccio notes in an August 2022 article for Bloomberg that Lockheed Martin has delivered more than 800 F-35 jets out of a potential global fleet of 3,500 units.
Air and Space Forces Magazine noted in a September 2021 article that F-35 production is set to peak at 156 units per year in 2023 and remain at that level throughout the aircraft’s production life.
Of that number, Japan Times notes in a March 2022 article that Tokyo plans to acquire 147 F-35s, with 105 being the F-35A air force variant. It will reportedly deploy 42 F-35B short/vertical take-off units for its Izumo-class light carriers.
However, F-35 production costs may keep rising, affecting the number of units Japan can purchase. In a November 2022 article for Defense News, Stephen Losey notes that fewer orders, increasing upgrades and the need to recover profits lost to the Covid-19 pandemic may push F-35 costs even higher, starting at US$78 million per F-35A unit.
But the F-35 may lose qualitatively even against older Chinese combat aircraft. Asia Times has previously noted that 2015 tests showed that the F-35 is sluggish compared to older aircraft such as the F-16 and thus may be at a disadvantage against newer Chinese fighters.
(It should be noted that the F-35 involved in the 2015 test was flying with software restrictions, reducing its combat potential.)
Asia Times has reported on China’s aerial attrition strategy vis-a-vis Japan, which plays against the latter’s limited number of fighters. Takahashi Kosuke notes in an October 2022 article in The Diplomat that Japan scrambled fighter aircraft 446 times in the first half of the fiscal year 2022 in response to Chinese and Russian combat aircraft approaching its airspace.
Asia Times has also previously reported on Japan’s intercept of China’s WZ-7 high-altitude drone using F-15J fighters. However, these intercepts may be unsustainably costly when comparing the maintenance and operation costs of China’s WZ-7 drones to Japan’s F-15Js.
Such a high operations tempo aims to inflict aircraft losses via wear and tear, ground crew miscalculation and pilot fatigue, all factors that could potentially ignite a wider escalation.
Given Japan’s limited number of fighters, it may opt to use multi-role missiles to perform long-range strikes traditionally conducted by manned aircraft. These missiles would preserve its limited number of aircraft to attack only the most critical targets and preserve its fighter numbers for air defense.
Source : Asia Times