Photo/Illutration The Ground Self-Defense Force’s cutting-edge Type 10 tank runs through a field at Camp Higashi-Chitose in Hokkaido in 2017. (Kuratoshi Yokoyama)

The ironclad argument for Japan to keep a full complement of tanks for national defense is being questioned after Russian combat vehicles were destroyed during the invasion of Ukraine.

The Finance Ministry has raised questions about the cost-effectiveness of tanks, while the Defense Ministry maintains that they are needed for integrated operations.

Tanks were cited as an example of “problematic defense equipment” in a document the Finance Ministry distributed to members of the Fiscal System Council, an advisory panel to the finance minister, during a session held on April 20.

“We must fully explain to the public whether it is best to continue to depend on tanks,” the document said.

Referring to the fact that Ukrainian forces have destroyed many Russian tanks with the U.S.-made Javelin portable anti-tank missile system, the document said, “Deploying anti-tank missiles improves our cost performance.”

The latest Type 10 tank costs about 1.4 billion yen ($10.5 million) per unit under the fiscal 2022 budget.

The Javelin costs about 23 million yen per missile and about 270 million yen per launch unit, according to a study by the Finance Ministry.

The ministry compiled the document as a basis for discussions at the Fiscal System Council, which influence the budget compilation process.

One council member told the April 20 session that Japan, surrounded by an ocean and seas, must give priority to bolstering its maritime and air defense capabilities, according to sources.

“Defense Ministry officials say the new fields of outer space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum are important, but they seem to be mired in placing importance on conventional equipment,” said Takero Doi, a professor of public finance at Keio University who serves as acting chief of the council’s spending reform committee, in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

The Defense Ministry underscored the need for tanks at an explanatory session for reporters on the same day.

“The Javelin requires coordination with friendly tanks, and it is difficult for it to fight on its own,” a ministry official said. “Tanks are effective because they have firepower, mobility and protection.”

A Type 16 mobile combat vehicle at the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Camp Makomanai in Sapporo in 2019 (Toru Saito)

Japan currently has about 540 tanks and plans to reduce that number to about 300 in 2023 or after, according to the Defense Ministry.

The nation had a record 1,200 tanks during the Cold War era, heavily deployed in Hokkaido to prepare for a Soviet invasion, but the government has gradually reduced that number.

A senior ministry official said it is difficult for the Ground Self-Defense Force to significantly scale back its tank regiment because it needs to maintain members’ proficiency in maneuvering.

Some ministry officials also said tanks will likely not be used in Japan, an island nation.

When it comes to defending remote islands from China, which is strengthening its maritime expansion, it has been pointed out that eight-wheel mobile combat vehicles are more useful because they are smaller than tanks and can be carried by transport aircraft.

While tanks can run on rubble, mobile combat vehicles can travel on regular roads at a speed of about 100 kph.

The Type 16 mobile combat vehicle, at about 700 million yen per unit under the fiscal 2022 budget, is also advantageous in terms of cost.

However, a senior SDF official said, “The functions of tanks in battlefields are still necessary, and they haven't lost their superiority."

Discussions at the Fiscal System Council are meant to require ministries and agencies to keep their budget requests for fiscal 2023, which will be submitted this summer, at appropriate levels.

“The defense budget should not be fixated on a scale, and discussions must be conducted head-on based on reality,” the council said in a set of recommendations submitted to the finance minister on May 25.