Building Defense Cooperation with Japan: Acquisition and Industry

Japan’s latest national security and defense strategies commit to significantly increased defense spending and intent to acquire unprecedented capabilities, such as long-range precision strike. These developments signal an evolution from a "spear” and “shield" division of labor with the United States providing power projection capabilities while Japan focused on strictly defensive operations, toward a more dynamic “spear and sword” concept of joint operations. Strategically, the United States and Japan have never been more closely aligned on national as well as regional security challenges.

Despite this deepening alignment, a critical area of alliance cooperation with Japan remains underdeveloped: defense industry and armaments cooperation. In contrast with several NATO allies, collaboration in the development and production of new capabilities is limited and plagued by a history of mutual disappointment. The absence of such cooperation is a critical weakness in the alliance—it impedes the United States and Japan from fully leveraging their respective resources to enhance capabilities, strengthen interoperability, and encourage the growth of important constituencies that could more deeply anchor their security partnership.

Common interest in advanced capabilities like uncrewed aircraft and—as announced during the August 18 talks between President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida—hypersonic missile interceptors offers the United States and Japan new opportunities for cooperative acquisition. Strengthened supply chain arrangements can lead to closer collaboration among the industrial bases of the United States, Japan, and other allies. However, realizing such potential gains will require not only resets in policy on both sides, but an evolution to a mindset more characteristic of true partnership than traditional supplier-customer relations.

Patterns of Engagement and Decades of Stasis

Given the limited attention to operational matters that characterized the spear and shield model of alliance cooperation, U.S. engagement with Japan on defense issues seldom focused on the capabilities and acquisition concerns integral to interaction among NATO allies. Defense acquisition programs had little place in dialogue under the Cabinet-level 2+2 bilateral consultation framework. Policy officials on both sides were seldom involved in the structuring of defense programs—except when drawn in by politicized controversies that generated improvised solutions but left lessons unlearned.

So it is not surprising that interaction on defense acquisitions remained locked in a decades-old framework of security assistance in which transfers of systems and technologies—primarily through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programs—continued in an almost entirely one-way flow from the United States. Joint research projects that were pursued with little regard to operational needs usually failed to evolve into tangible programs.

In the absence of broader operational imperatives, U.S.-Japan defense programs focused on filling Japan Self-Defense Force equipment inventories and satisfying stakeholder communities. For decades this framework for managing defense programs met perceived needs in providing work for Japan’s defense industry and substantial income for U.S. suppliers. Despite friction over ineffective procurement management and terms of technology transfer, there was little incentive to change deeply ingrained patterns of interaction.

Growing Challenges to U.S.-Japan Defense Programs

In response to growing regional security challenges, U.S. defense officials have called for more dynamic defense relationships with Japan and other key allies. Critical to such ties will be closer interoperability among defense forces as well as the sharing of industrial and technological resources to meet capability needs. In the case of Japan, progress toward such goals continues to be hampered by policy and institutional constraints on both sides. More broadly, a lack of sustained dialogue on defense requirements has combined with growing friction over technology release to undercut opportunities for cooperative acquisition programs. This problem was particularly evident in inconclusive bilateral dialogue on support for Japan’s next-generation F-X fighter—the outcome of which led to Japan to join the United Kingdom and Italy in the future Global Combat Aircraft Program (GCAP).

Meanwhile, years of stagnant Japanese defense budgets, inefficient use of available procurement funds and a sharp increase in purchases of high-end U.S. defense systems combined to steadily erode Japan’s defense industrial and technology base. While Japan has embarked on ambitious plans to increase defense budgets and promote more effective acquisition practices, it is unclear how such measures will impact a defense industry base largely isolated from both international engagement and other sectors of Japanese industry.

From Bilateral to Multilateral Engagement

Both the scale of China’s military modernization and growing emphasis on multilateral defense cooperation will require closer integration of international industrial and technology base resources. The emerging AUKUS partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia on nuclear submarines and other leading-edge defense capabilities as well as current support operations for Ukraine attest to this reality. So does Japan’s decision to join the GCAP effort.

U.S.-Japan interaction on defense acquisition should no longer stand apart from the trend toward multilateral programs. Some U.S. government and industry officials still view Japan’s move to join GCAP rather than adopt a U.S.-based solution for its F-X fighter as an aberration, the experience of which will lead Japan back to a traditional U.S.-centric orbit for major defense acquisitions. Similarly, some defense stakeholders in Japan may continue to hope that international engagement can remain largely at arm’s length, while its industry remains protected in a Government of Japan-subsidized bubble. However, such backward-looking instincts on both sides must evolve—both for Japan to develop a truly competitive defense industrial base, and alliance cooperation to continue moving toward true partnerships.

Evolving Armaments Cooperation to Meet Alliance Needs

To realize spear and sword collaboration, U.S. defense officials are working with Japanese counterparts to “operationalize” alliance engagement in planning, joint exercises, and training. Advancing armaments cooperation to the level of this more dynamic U.S.-Japan defense partnership will require substantial policy, institutional, and cultural adjustments on both sides.

First, the United States and Japan need to bridge the gaps that separate policy, requirements, and acquisition in defense dialogue. Discussions on Roles, Missions, and Capabilities under the 2+2 framework should broaden to include operational requirements and acquisition planning. Policy and acquisition officials could then work with military service counterparts to align requirements, identify cooperative acquisition opportunities, and apply the results of joint technology research to tangible effect.

Then, success in pursuing joint defense acquisitions will require both countries to depart from a security assistance approach to cooperation. While transfers through FMS will sometimes remain necessary for providing critical technologies, the United States cannot expect Japan and other key allies to act as resource-sharing partners while still being treated as customers on export control and technology release. Japan cannot expect continued transfers of leading-edge U.S. defense systems and technologies as alliance entitlements. Programs will have to demonstrate both operational and industrial/technology base benefits.

While often cited as a symbol of alliance cooperation, joint U.S.-Japan work on development of the Standard Missile 3 Blk IIA ballistic missile interceptor was hampered by delays, managerial problems, and excessive costs that greatly diminished planned levels of procurement. Future collaboration on acquisition programs must move more efficiently from defining requirements through research and development phases and into production.

Joint research projects between U.S. and Japanese defense agencies should broaden from the generic technology interests that have defined—and limited—past projects to address identified operational priorities. Success in cooperative acquisition will depend on merging “technology seeds” with “requirements needs.”

Cooperative programs among the United States, Japan, and other partners will also require direction through joint program offices, sharing of national resources, and integrated industry teams. Since Japan has had no experience with multinational acquisition efforts, current work to establish a framework for trilateral GCAP development should set critical precedents for Japanese government and industry participants.

Policy and Institutional Challenges

As Japan and other allies insist on sovereign control over the technologies embedded in the defense systems they acquire—and viable alternatives to U.S. sourcing increase—a more responsive U.S. approach to disclosure and release practices becomes a matter of increasing urgency. U.S. actions on export control and technology release toward Japan will in turn depend in part on further Japanese government efforts to implement more effective export control measures as well as strengthen information security procedures.

The adoption of current proposals to broaden the scope of Japanese defense equipment transfers would be a welcome development, but the real impact of such measures will be limited without improvements in excessively complicated and nontransparent processes for export licensing. Per its recently released Defense Industrial Security Manual, the Japanese government is making substantial effort to develop effective information and industrial security measures. Work in this area needs to continue to ensure a whole-of-government application for security measures and their enforcement among Japanese industry participants in defense programs.

Beyond policy and process matters, ingrained institutional and cultural patterns may pose the greatest challenge facing more effective U.S.-Japan cooperation on defense acquisitions. Just as some U.S. government officials still view transfers of defense capabilities to Japan as security assistance exercises, U.S. industry has often seen access to Japan’s defense market as an indefinite given. Such attitudes have persisted in the face of growing Japanese insistence on sovereign control over the technologies in major defense acquisitions—as evident in years of disconnect on the F-X fighter project.

Meanwhile, many stakeholders in Japan’s defense community have resisted the idea that licensed production and subsidized indigenous programs would no longer suffice to advance their industrial technology base. In accepting the reality of closer international engagement on acquisition as well as operational concerns, defense planners in Japan will need to focus more on aligning equipment programs with international standards and less on emphasizing “unique” requirements that result in non-interoperable capabilities.

Incremental amendments to export control measures are unlikely to provide enough incentive for Japan’s defense industry (let alone nontraditional suppliers) to engage international partners. All participants in international defense programs rely on teams of government and industry officials to plan strategies, seek opportunities, negotiate agreements, ensure follow-on support, and promote reciprocal investments in industrial base resources. Export promotion measures in the Japanese government’s new defense industry policy are a positive first step in this direction.

Some of the challenges described above will require years of institutional evolution to address. Other measures could be implemented in the near future:

  • Establishing regular requirements and acquisition dialogue
  • Identifying opportunities for cooperative acquisition
  • Continuing efforts to improve FMS management
  • Easing export process barriers
  • Adopting a more balanced approach to technology release (priority on alliance capability needs versus a rigid stance on protection)

Each of these developments would build precedents that shift the framework of armaments cooperation toward a paradigm that enables—rather than obstructs—more dynamic U.S.-Japan alliance engagement.

Gregg Rubinstein is an adjunct fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.