U.S. military operations have centered on the Middle East and Southwest Asia for most of the last two decades. The result is a myopic focus on combat against insurgents and terrorists. But the Western Pacific and Eastern Asia offer another concern.
Some of the world's largest, economically fastest-growing and most industrialized nations are beginning to develop and flex their military muscle. The question for the U.S. and its partners, in particular Japan, is how to keep a lid on political tensions and the impulse to use military force to solve problems of state. Here, in a special report, Aviation Week & Space Technology examines a series of measures to do just that, ranging from the development of nonexplosive technologies to bilateral cruise and ballistic missile defenses.
China, North Korea and Russia are just over the horizon, but the newest defense crisis for Japan is emerging from within.
Planners are paid to worry about foreign military capabilities; so Japanese and U.S. officials are closely monitoring advanced weapons development in North Korea and China. Even Russia is a concern because of its role as a source of sophisticated military gear for the world market. Now Japanese and U.S. planners believe they have created an answer for emerging missile and advanced strike aircraft threats with a series of new bilateral agreements addressing cooperative missile defenses, operations centers, training programs and base sharing.
But partisan politics may now be threatening that careful preparation. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—dedicated to reorganizing the country's military and acquiring modern equipment such as the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter—is threatened by July's election loss of a majority in the Japanese senate. The pummeling of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party came at the hands of the upstart Democratic Party of Japan, which opposes and has threatened to stall many of his reforms. Abe's political strength is in the lower house, which appointed him; but there's concern that defense modernization efforts will stagnate even as Japan's neighbors' advanced military technologies grow and improve.
U.S. officials also fear a lack of attention on the region by Washington. Despite the latent threats that may one day surface, many senior officials in Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) say that U.S. distractions caused by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have overfocused military planning on conflict against stateless insurgents.
"The nation has a laser beam focus on what's happening in Iraq," says Brig. Gen. Punch Moulton, commander of the 18th Wing, based at Kadena AB, Okinawa. "[But] we're the people that [have] the burden here to ensure that America's airpower is ready for something other than operations in the Middle East."
Noting that some high-level, Washington-based officials aren't yet aware that F-22s have been dropping precision bombs, the concern among airmen is that "the proponency and perceived relevance of air, space and cyberpower are waning," says a veteran fighter pilot here.