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Editorial: Is Japan's defense spending getting out of hand?

Defense allocations in the fiscal 2016 budget draft blew through the 5-trillion-yen barrier for the first time ever, clocking in at just over 5.54 trillion yen. That's about 74 billion yen more than fiscal 2015 -- a 1.5 percent increase -- making defense an obvious favorite among the nation's spending categories. It's also the fourth year in a row that the defense budget has risen since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched his second administration in 2012.

    There is one fundamental idea guiding the changes in Japan's defensive capabilities: to counter China and North Korea, Japan must strengthen the defense of its more remote islands, and its alliance with the United States. The idea itself is correct, but we must ask if there has been enough careful examination of what it means.

    Defense spending is decided by the five-year Medium-Term Defense Force Buildup Program, which takes into account new equipment purchases and total costs. The defense budget for next fiscal year is no different, following the plan set out under the current 2014-2018 buildup program. What stands out is the planned purchase of American-made high-spec -- and high cost -- hardware, including Osprey transport aircraft, Global Hawk drones, F-35A Lighting II fighters, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye early warning aircraft, and amphibious vehicles.

    As major equipment acquisitions and new facility construction take years, their costs are broken up over multiple annual budgets. For example, the construction and equipment orders slated for fiscal 2016 will add an additional 2 trillion yen-plus to Japan's defense outlays for fiscal 2017. But the extra spending will not stop at these deferred payments; all this equipment will no doubt need expensive maintenance as well. It's all too possible the defense budget will come under pressure in the future.

    Take, for example, the Osprey. The fiscal 2016 budget request submitted this past summer initially asked for 12 of the aircraft all at once, to make the purchase cheaper than it would be if broken up into smaller lots. However, after discovering that there would be an extra 20 billion yen tab for technical support from the U.S. among other outlays, the request was dropped to four Ospreys in fiscal 2016.

    The new security laws will come into force at the end of March next year, vastly expanding the Self-Defense Forces' (SDF) operational breadth and scope. Money will almost certainly be needed for the extra training required for SDF personnel to fulfill their new brief.

    Prime Minister Abe has stated that defense expenditures will stick to the mid-term program roadmap, and that the new security legislation will not mean any extra outlays. However, though the program runs for five years, it also contains a provision allowing the government to revamp it after its third year, which happens to be fiscal 2016. We may see increasing pressure to do just that.

    Meanwhile the "sympathy budget" -- the amount Japan pays to support U.S. military bases in the country -- is set to rise some 2.1 billion yen from last fiscal year, to 192 billion yen. The bill for realigning U.S. military forces in Japan -- including moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa -- is also swelling.

    For example, the central government doubled its subsidies to three districts in the Henoko area to 78 million yen, bypassing Nago and its anti-base relocation mayor in the process. According to the Defense Ministry, the exact uses for this money have yet to be decided, making these funds the very definition of pork-barreling.

    It is necessary to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance, but this is being done by inflating the defense budget -- a fact which begs the question: Is supervision of this spending not becoming lax? We would like to see the government explain this spending in detail, and the opposition parties severely question its content, once the Diet convenes its regular session soon after the New Year.

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