TOKYO — Japan’s Cabinet approved a record defense budget Friday that includes a number of American stealth fighter jets as well as funding to research potentially developing its own fighter jet program.
The 5.31 trillion yen ($48.6 billion) defense budget for fiscal 2020 still needs parliamentary approval, but would be a 1.1 percent increase from the current year.
Japan’s defense spending has risen for seven consecutive years by a total of 13 percent since 2013, a year after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office, as the government looks to increase its defense posture amid threats from China and North Korea.
Among the most costly purchases in the draft are Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 stealth fighters. Under the 2020 budget plan, Japan is to buy six F-35B stealth fighter jets capable of short takeoff and vertical landing at a cost of 79.3 billion yen ($725 million).
Those six are the first of 42 F-35Bs Japan plans to acquire in coming years.
Buying costly American weapons helps reduce Japan’s trade surplus with the U.S., a point of contention in Washington, but raises concerns at home that it will set back the country’s fledgling local defense industry.
The 2020 draft does include 28 billion yen ($256 million) for the initial research into developing next generation fighter jets to replace aging F-2s that are expected to retire in the 2030s. Japan plans to develop its own engine, but is also considering co-developing some other parts with the U.S. and Britain to increase compatibility, defense officials said. They said further details would be decided next year.
Japan also plans to buy three F-35As for 9.37 billion yen ($85.7 million) each as components for assembly at home, rather than as finished products that would cost slightly more. It will also allow the country to gain expertise.
To accommodate the F-35Bs, the Defense Ministry will spend 3.1 billion yen ($290 million) to reconfigure one of its two helicopter carriers, Izumo, with a heat-resistant flight deck and guiding lights, beginning next year.
The other flattop, Kaga, will be reconfigured later.
Despite its pacifist constitution, Japan’s defense spending ranks among the world’s top 10, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Abe has pushed for Japan's Self-Defense Force to expand its international role and capability by bolstering cooperation and weapons compatibility with its ally, the U.S., as it increasingly works alongside American troops. Abe in 2015 reinterpreted Japan's constitution to allow the use of force in depending itself and its allies.
Japan is now expected to send its naval troops to the Middle East to protect Japanese vessels transporting oil amid tension in the region.