As China massively upgrades its power projection abilities with naval and naval air assets, and North Korea retains its nuclear and missile capabilities despite the diplomatic breakthroughs of  2018, Northeast Asia’s democracies Japan and South Korea are also muscling up.

It is unclear how far 2019’s defense budgets are driven by their urge to deter potential enemies, and how far by the unpredictable status of alliances under the Donald Trump administration.

A further complication is the administration’s aggressive moves to cut trade deficits with Asian economies: Defense equipment is expensive, and the US remains the “arsenal of democracy.”

Regardless, in 2019 Japan will be sinking a whopping US$47 billion into its defense in 2019, reportedly the largest annual defense budget ever deployed. That is up 1.3% from the previous year, and a rise for the seventh straight year. More significantly, 2019 marks the first year in a five-year defense budget plan of $250 billion.

South Korea is close behind this year. In 2019 it will be investing $42 billion – an increase of 8.2%, year–on-year – reportedly the largest expansion since 2008 when the country had just transitioned to a conservative presidency which overturned the previous “Sunshine Policy” of North Korean engagement.

The size of these budgets is particularly notable given that last year saw a charm offensive from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, related international summits and a significant reduction of tension around the Korean peninsula.

“I think what we’re seeing at the moment is a case of both countries hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” said Craig Caffery, a principal analyst at Jane’s by IHS Markit. “Diplomatic developments can occur overnight, but military capability takes years to develop, so it makes sense to take a longer-term view of military requirements.”

Caffery is unconvinced that the increased military spending is aimed at ameliorating possible Trump trade broadsides toward Japan and South Korea.

“Higher levels of defense spending will certainly be welcome news to President Trump, but I don’t think they have much to do with him,” Caffery said. “Both countries are responding to emerging security concerns and their response to those factors pre-dates recent US calls for higher spending.

“Defense contracts certainly have diplomatic value, but the primary concern will always be the capability requirements of the armed forces.”

Japan’s shopping list

Tokyo has a long shopping list. It is acquiring two land-based Aegis missile-defense systems, beefing up its seaborne Aegis, for deployment in 2023.

“The decision to acquire two land-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems is the clearest indication of intent” to defend against North Korean missile threats, said Caffery of Jane’s.

In 2019, six F35 stealth fighters will be acquired, but a far bigger fleet of 142 F35s – both the conventional F35A and the F35B short-take-off-and-landing variant – is to be purchased by 2023. To cut costs, earlier plans for localized production have reportedly been overturned: The fighters, at $88 million apiece, look set to be acquired lock, stock and barrel from the United States.

Two of Tokyo’s so-called “helicopter destroyers” of the Izumo class will be upgraded to operate F35Bs, converting them from de facto to de jure aircraft carriers, albeit smaller than Chinese or US vessels of the class. Japan deployed a powerful carrier force in the Pacific during World War II, but has not operated carriers since 1945.

Two more destroyers will be added to the fleet, as will a submarine with top-end detection technologies.

The addition of carriers to Tokyo’s arsenal is significant, given that a marine brigade was also activated in 2019. “I think what you are looking at is something akin to US amphibious assault ships like the USS Wasp,” said Alex Neill of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, or IISS, who has been aboard the Izumo-class Kaga. “It will be a mixed capability, with the heli platform as well as the F35Bs.”

Once converted to flat tops with F35Bs aboard, together with the marines and Japan’s already expansive surface fleet – which operates more destroyers and frigates than the Royal and French navies combined – add a significant new expeditionary capability.

Missions could include covering the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands and venturing into the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean – possibly in the company of Australian, Indian and US assets as they seek to counter China’s naval build-up.

Neill speculated that the stealth nature of the F35Bs could compromise the sophisticated defense systems China has deployed on bases in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which go operational this year.

He also emphasized the versatility of the upgraded ships. “There are hospitals on board and command-and-control aspects to these platforms,” he told Asia Times. “If you cater for the fact that they will be networked into US and other allied assets in the region, the force multiplication aspect is important.”

Yet more US defense equipment comes in the shape of nine E-2D early warning aircraft and three Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. Cyber defense capability is being reinforced, with some $20 million to allocate more resources and staff.

Meanwhile, the relocation of a US Marine base on Okinawa is proceeding, despite local opposition on environmental grounds. All this suggest a new and broader strategic outlook in Tokyo.

“In Japan, the short-term focus was very much on the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, which fits well with the country’s traditional defensive stance on security issues,” said Caffery of Jane’s. “But the new mid-term defense program which was approved in December is pushing Japan towards a more pro-active, rather than reactionary, stance.”

Home-grown technologies

If Japan appears to be assuming both North Korean and Chinese threats, South Korea seems most focused on its northern neighbor.

The biggest chunk of Seoul’s budget – some $28 billion – is for the maintenance of personnel and existing equipment, the aim being to make the military smarter and more efficient. Some $14 billion will be spent on new hardware, including aircraft and destroyers.

Among the new hardware, the standout outlay is $5.1 billion for Seoul’s “three-axis” defense system – a 16.4% on-year increase. It encompasses “Massive Punishment and Retaliation” – a multi-pronged wartime plan to take out the North Korean leadership; the “Kill Chain” pre-emptive strike system, designed to hit North Korean missile bases; and the Korean Air and Missile Defense System, a defensive network.

This includes purchases of “Green Pine” early warning systems announced in November.

Neill of ISS considers the missile defense capabilities the standout items. “I think that, both in the case of Japan and Korea, uncertainty over North Korea and the sincerity of its willingness to denuclearize, means there are a whole range of different short- and mid-range missile platforms that have to be talked about,” he said.

Some $4.1 billion will reinforce command and control and battlefield maneuverability. These assets are deemed essential to maintain the army’s efficacy, as South Korea, faced with a declining population, slashes its service personnel to 500,000 from 618,000 by 2022.

Can Korea take command?

A total of $3 billion is allotted to defense R&D, including AI, robotics and drones. A relatively modest $1.39 billion goes toward communications, reconnaissance and counter-artillery assets – all required if the South Korean military is to take over wartime operational control (OPCON) of its military, which is now part of a joint command led by the United States.

Last year, US Commander in Chief Korea Vincent Brooks stated bluntly that South Korea was not ready for OPCON transfer. Neill of IISS is also unconvinced.

“It seems to be a question of perpetual procrastination, it has been discussed for over a decade now,” Neill said. “Systemically, the South Korean system is acclimatized to US operational control, their whole command structure emulates that of the US and was designed to have the US inherently intertwined with that.

“Until South Korea comes up with a plausible command structure which can be matrix managed, I think the US fears a sort of Confucian rigidity and deference to seniority that does not allow for flexibility on the battlefield and quick decision making; is it confident in rapid reaction capability in escalation dominance and escalation management?”