Japan’s Defense Ministry recommends military upgrades, including buying drones

SEOUL — Japan’s Defense Ministry on Friday recommended significant upgrades in the country’s military capabilities, including the purchase of surveillance drones, citing increasing security tensions in the region.

The plans were outlined in an interim report on overhauls to Japan’s defense strategy. Although a final determination won’t come until the end of the year, the report hints at the nation’s new defense tactics under hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has pledged to loosen restrictions imposed on Japan’s forces by the pacifist constitution.

ASHLAND, MA - APRIL 15: J.P. Norden stands on the pavement as he's greeted by students from Ashland High School while walking in the 1st Annual Legs for Life Walk on April 15, 2014 in Ashland, Ma. The fund raising walk was put together by the Norden family, whose two sons, J.P. and Paul Norden lost their right legs during the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The walk took place on the exact Boston Marathon route on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

(Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post)

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In addition to buying drones, Japan should also consider strengthening deterrence against ballistic missile strikes and establishing a marine unit to counter attacks on remote islands, according to a preliminary translation of the report. It said Japan’s defense policies needed to be reviewed in the wake of North Korean missile and nuclear tests and “China’s increasing [maritime] activities in Japan’s vicinity.”

Shortly after taking office in December, Abe ordered the review of the defense guidelines — a set of fundamental policies that were last updated in 2010 by the left-center Democratic Party of Japan, which has since been ousted. Abe has frequently vowed to turn Japan into a “normal country,” one that can regain lost clout not only with a revived economy but also with improved defense capabilities and broader security cooperation with allies, including the United States.

For the most ambitious changes to its Self-Defense Forces, Japan would have to revise its constitution, under which it renounces war. But that would require a protracted political battle, analysts say, and probably cost Abe some of his popularity at home.

Abe has available a middle ground that includes some of the improvements recommended Friday. Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, told reporters in Tokyo that “there is no change in our basic stance of defense-only policy.”

According to analysts, Japan’s greatest security concern is the East China Sea. Since the Japanese government purchased several disputed islands there last year, Chinese ships have patrolled the area with increasing frequency, most recently Friday, when Chinese coast guard vessels confronted Japanese boats. Although no such standoff has turned violent, experts in Tokyo and Washington worry that a miscalculation could trigger an armed conflict.

To respond to any attack on a remote island, the interim report said, “air superiority and command of the sea must be maintained. To rapidly deploy troops as the situation unfolds, mobile deployment capability and amphibious capability are also important.”

Under the previous government, Japan was sharpening its focus on the disputed islands. Following the 2010 defense guidelines, Japan spread its forces more evenly across the country — a change from the antiquated Cold War posture that focused on defending against a Soviet invasion in the north. The guidelines also called for the creation of military units that could move quickly to any trouble spot, including contested islands.

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