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.
The far different mission in the Pacific and Asia has "lost understanding and appreciation with the senior leadership," he says. "Out here, we're 10 min. from a No Dong [North Korean missile] impact. What's different in this part of the world is that you have major military capabilities that are modernizing very quickly. [Maintaining] airpower is a major concern. This alliance [with Japan] promotes peace and stability in a region that could become a flash point for the entire world."
As commander of USFJ, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright is obligated to plan for both the best and worst.
"I'm very positive about our engagement with China," Wright says. "I think there's tremendous potential for the alliance to engage in military-to-military-to-military interaction with the Chinese."
"We're trying not to let anyone drive a wedge between China and the U.S.," Moulton agrees. "It's through engagement that there's friendship. and through friendship that you don't end up in wars. I think there are ways to straighten out the Taiwan Strait issues without coming to blows."
But complacency and hope aren't a policy.
"We are keeping an intelligence watch on China and continue to be concerned about military modernization and force shaping," says Wright, who shares in the responsibility for regional preparedness. "They are constantly engaged in everything—cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, chemical, biological and radiological weapons, advanced air-to-ground weapons. The way they service and operate their force has our attention.
"There is a lot of electronic probing," he continues. "They are generating combat aircraft and missiles with conventional warheads that could create problems in our ports and rear areas. [Moreover,] if one gets through, Japan will look at counter-action."
Yet, fielding a defense that will stop everything is daunting to military planners and operators. It would require every bit of sophisticated weaponry available to the U.S., including advanced radars, air defense missiles and aircraft capable of evading air defenses.
"You have to go after command-and-control [sites] and points of origin [for missile launches]," Wright says. "We need to be more efficient and [the new capability of] cruise-missile intercept needs a lot of work. The challenge is timely warning and keeping combat air patrols up—the F-22s and F-15s [equipped with active, electronically scanned array radars]—that can detect small targets. There's only a small window to intercept them. How many aircraft do we need? There are significant challenges, and the answer is to constantly balance capabilities and to put more money into robust cruise and ballistic missile defense."
In fact, some in the U.S. Congress were so concerned with cruise missile defense this summer that early budget language supported full funding for key weapons procurements, including the F-22 and F-35 (both of which will have the capability to detect and attack small targets like stealthy cruise missiles). Development programs that address "asymmetric threats, including cruise missiles," were also cited. While the words were excised from the final document, congressional staffers expect the language to reemerge in subsequent defense budgets.
The two new fighters are designed to penetrate double-digit air defenses—including SA-10s, SA-20s and SA-22s—to bomb ballistic missile launch sites. That's considered the surest way to prevent missiles from striking Japan. But there's no perfect solution so far.
"[The F-22] continues to be advertised as an air-to-air only fighter, and that's just wrong," Wright contends. "With its small radar cross section, it can go into a double-digit SAM environment today and deploy precision weapons.
"There are significant challenges," he admits. "The answer is to constantly balance capabilities and put money into more robust cruise and ballistic missile defense, command and control from the U.S., and intelligence from Japan."
Japan shares the concern at the highest levels, including Adm. Takashi Saito, the Self-Defense Forces' first chief of the joint staff office, says a Tokyo-based Japanese military officer. Saito has a much more operational role than the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a result, he has pushed for a bilateral operations and coordination center to support him in his new position and the newly created defense ministry. As part of the focus on cruise and ballistic missile defense, the Self-Defense Forces started building a counteroffensive fighter capability during their June exercise in Guam, where they dropped live bombs for the first time since World War II.
"We need to ensure that if one of those missiles slip through, the bad guys know we have counteroffensive air capabilities to attack launch and command-and-control facilities," says another U.S. Air Force official.
Meanwhile, North Korea is the locus of credit-card fraud, and Russia appears to have fired the first shot in cyberwar with attacks on Estonia's government and banking system. China also is gaining notoriety for its excursions into the cyber-realm.
"We don't know what we don't know about the cyber-realm and China's capabilities," says Wright. "Our command and control is very dependent on the cyber-fight and the external and internal proliferation of Internet communications. Chinese probing is increasing. It's too lucrative a target to pass up."
Other worrisome developments include Chinese aircraft operating near Japanese airspace as well as an increase in Chinese ship traffic off military bases; submarines, for example, have been spotted near shore.
"The fact that there has been an element of surprise [to U.S. and Japanese officials] in this activity shows there's an intelligence gap," he says. "We still lack the ability to deduce their intentions."
Another emerging threat involves any nation that has missiles that can put a nuclear weapon into space and detonate it there. The resulting electronic spikes and waves of damaging particles such as X-rays could destroy the communications and sensing capabilities of low-Earth-orbit satellites and even disrupt key financial infrastructure.
"Those who would use nuclear-generated EMP [electromagnetic pulse] are the countries with the least to lose," says Wright.
"We know we're vulnerable. As part of our deterrent strategy and contingency planning, we need to ensure our network-centric framework lets us respond with adequate military force even if our command-and-control loop is damaged. Other countries aren't so reliant on [network operations]," he notes.
In the last two years, Israeli military officials have drawn similar conclusions from missile and nuclear weapons development in Iran. The Israeli air force, for example, has decided to keep more manned aircraft and operate them longer, so that in case of massive electronic or cyber-attack, they can still gather intelligence and generate bombing missions.