by Thomas Dolzall, Defense Analyst, Forecast International.
On September 10, the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA) under the Japanese Ministry of Defense announced that it had selected the three final contenders in a competition to replace the country’s aging fleet of Type 96 8×8 wheeled armored personnel carriers (APCs).
According to the statement, the Japanese government will now move forward over the course of the coming year to assess the feasibility of acquiring the Armored Modular Vehicle XP (AMVXP) provided by Finnish defense contractor Patria, the Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) 6.0 from General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS), or an unspecified 8×8 APC model designed and manufactured locally by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
The new announcement sheds renewed light on the status of the Ground Self- Defense Force’s wheeled APC procurement initiative – which had receded into a state of near-dormancy after the unexpected cancellation of the locally developed Wheeled Armored Vehicle (Improved) in early 2018 – and carries significant implications for the future composition of Japan’s mechanized force structure.
For decades, the Japan GSDF has relied almost exclusively upon ground vehicle platforms designed and built locally by Japanese contractors. In the years subsequent to the conclusion of the Second World War, the new Japanese government sought to reconstruct the country’s manufacturing base and attain economic autonomy through the implementation of state-guided industrial investment and import-substitution policies.
The provisions of Japan’s 1947 Constitution narrowed the role of the country’s post-war armed forces strictly to one of territorial self-defense, and subsequent legislation likewise effectively forbade the country from pursuing international arms exports.
Nevertheless, the re-establishment of a national defense-industrial base was deemed a worthwhile investment by the Japanese government for strategic considerations as well as a means of providing domestic contractors with the opportunity to cultivate a robust heavy manufacturing infrastructure and generate the specialized knowledge base required to develop advanced systems and technologies in the future.
Although many early designs tended to derive significant design inspiration from an earlier generation of U.S. vehicle platforms, by the 1980s the Japanese defense industry was producing entirely indigenous ground vehicle systems of comparable technical sophistication to their U.S. and Western European counterparts, and the JGSDF had come to field a mechanized force structure composed overwhelmingly of domestic platforms.
In 1996, the GSDF introduced the Type 96 8×8 wheeled APC into active service. Designed and manufactured by Komatsu Ltd, the Type 96 reflected the prevailing design philosophies and tactical priorities of the late and immediate post-Cold War period. The primary operational function assigned to wheeled armored vehicles under these doctrines remained that of the troop transport, providing rapid mobility and deployment capacity to infantry forces acting in support of more robustly equipped breakthrough elements.
However, the experiences gleaned by international militaries from deployments to the irregular combat environments of the so-called new wars of the late 1990s, and later on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq in the years subsequent to the 9/11 terror attacks, served as a powerful impetus for the broad re-evaluation of the required specifications for successful wheeled armored vehicle designs in the current era. The emergence and proliferation of inexpensive, but highly lethal, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) have steadily made the more traditional APC designs increasingly untenable on the modern battlefield.
The Japanese military’s limited overseas commitments in the form of non-combat operations mitigated some of the urgency of rectifying the Type 96’s apparent survivability shortfalls. Nevertheless, by the 2010s the Ministry of Defense had concluded that the time had come to seek out a replacement, and it subsequently launched the Wheeled Armored Vehicle (Improved) program in 2014.
Development under the program was once again spearheaded by Komatsu, acting in close coordination with ATLA. The new platform was to be oriented around the same conventional warfare mission profile as the Type 96 design, but was poised to integrate significant survivability improvements and modular potential that would also allow it to perform effectively in a far wider range of operational contexts and configurations than its predecessor. MoD documents indicated that the program derived design influences from successful equivalent platforms such as General Dynamics European Land Systems’ Piranha V series.
In January 2017, the first prototype of the Wheeled Armored Vehicle (Improved) was unveiled to the public. The new platform appeared to proceed apace through the early stages of its trials and testing process over the remainder of that year without any significant developmental complications. However, in April ATLA revealed that the launch date for the platform would need to be delayed by at least one year, owing to the vehicle’s consistently unsatisfactory performance in pivotal ballistics tests.
With the program’s developmental costs beginning to significantly exceed initial projections and any potential launch date for serial production of the new platform now residing well beyond the 2020 target initially set by the MoD, the decision was made only a few months later to cancel the Wheeled Armored Vehicle (Improved) program outright.
Faced with the prospect of either finding means to further extend the Type 96’s operational life-cycle or investigating the option of large-scale procurement or licensed production of a foreign APC design, the Japanese MoD has opted to at least investigate the latter option in light of the country’s increasingly time-sensitive requirement for the modernization of its wheeled APC capabilities.
In early 2019, Komatsu announced that it would cease participation in the armored vehicles business outside of the fulfillment of existing contracts – citing a combination of high developmental costs, slim profit margins, and the circumstances surrounding the collapse of the Wheeled Armored Vehicle (Improved) program.
The JGSDF has pursued procurement of select quantities of foreign-sourced armored vehicles in recent years, primarily to fulfill specialized functions within the service’s armored force structure. Acquisitions of this type most notably include the procurement of AAV7A1 tracked amphibious vehicles intended to form the basis of the service’s nascent marine contingent, as well as the purchase of eight Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles for deployment to peacekeeping operations in unconventional security environments.
Nevertheless, the uniquely challenging circumstances resulting from the collapse of the Wheeled Armored Vehicle (Improved) program may have inadvertently opened the door to the Japanese military’s first large-scale acquisition of a non-indigenous land vehicle platform in many years.
Each of the three vehicles shortlisted by the MoD presents its own tradeoffs for policy makers as they seek to fulfill the GSDF’s urgent strategic requirements in a timely manner while simultaneously adjusting for budgetary restrictions and remaining institutional preference for locally manufactured products.
Early press reports in the wake of the collapse of the Komatsu program indicated that the MoD had expressed interest in joining ARTEC’s Boxer program, but its absence in the final competition suggests that the vehicle’s high unit cost or heavy combat weight (in excess of 30 tonnes) may have been deemed unsuitable to Japanese requirements.
It remains uncertain as to what procurement model the Japanese MoD would choose to pursue in the event that the competition selects an option other than that on offer by MHI, with options ranging from wholesale importation to licensed-production arrangements, or some combination of both options.
In Patria’s statement regarding the AMVXP’s selection for the competition, the company emphasized its willingness to establish a local production line and technology-transfer arrangement in the event of its vehicle’s selection.
Patria’s AMV vehicle has achieved considerable market success in recent years as a result of similar licensed-production contracts, resulting in the production of a wide range of platform variants tailored specifically to meet the operational and industrial requirements of its various international customers. The most notable examples include Poland and South Africa, which used the AMV platform as the basis for their KTO Rosomak and Denel Land Systems Badger series armored vehicles, respectively.
GDLS’s LAV series and its many variants have likewise attained a strong market position over the past 15 years, becoming ubiquitous in the mechanized force structures of major industrialized countries such as Canada (LAV III) and the United States (Stryker), among others.
Relatively less is known regarding the option put on offer by MHI for the competition. It is likely a more mature version of the 8×8 APC that the company revealed in 2014 at the Eurosatory Defense Exhibition. MHI also produces the GSDF’s 8×8 Type 16 wheeled tank destroyer, and the APC design is apparently derived from this basis.
Given that cost overruns were among the causes of the cancellation of the Wheeled Armored Vehicle (Improved), the options to establish a licensed- production line or pursue local production could present their own challenges for the Japanese government. The GSDF typically only acquires a small quantity of new-build armored vehicles per year – for example, only receiving about two dozen of its high-priority Type 16 Maneuver Combat Vehicles (MCVs) annually. Particularly for an increasingly time-sensitive requirement, the potential cost inefficiencies of establishing a new low-rate production line for a Type 96 successor could become a source of contention among Japanese policy makers.
Nevertheless, the option may be deemed the best available compromise in providing the military with a capable and field-proven vehicle design while at the same time patronizing and supporting local Japanese industries, somewhat analogous to the industrial policy pursued under previous Japanese defense programs such as the Mitsubishi F-2 fighter.
Local press reports indicate that the testing phase for the vehicles on option will continue through 2019, with development of platform variants suited specifically to Japan’s requirements scheduled for FY21 subsequent to the conclusion of the assessment period.