Matsushima Air Base.

The Asahi Shimbun‘s daily column Vox Populi took on the issue of the F-2 fighters destroyed at Matsushima by the 3/11 tsunami. Eighteen F-2  fighters were inundated by water and slammed into buildings and floating debris. In all, twelve of the F-2s have been judged beyond repair and will be scrapped. The complete article is here.

The column takes the ASDF to task, somewhat unfairly, over the grounding of the planes during the tsunami. It also balks at the cost to determine if the planes could be salvaged, and the cost of repairs. As an outsider who doesn’t have have a dog in this fight, I’d like to make the following observations, countering the most important points in the article.

Even though they were equipped with wings, fighter jets in the Air Self-Defense Force’s Matsushima Base in Miyagi Prefecture did not escape the tsunami. Eighteen fighters, each priced at 11 billion yen ($145 million), were submerged. Of them, 12 had to be scrapped. The remaining six will be repaired, but the repairs could cost 80 billion yen. A letter to the editor that recently ran in the vernacular Asahi Shimbun’s Koe (Voice) column described the situation as “pathetic.”

Well yes, each fighter cost 11 billion yen to procure ($145 million) to procure, and could cost up to $13 billion yen ($171 million) to repair. But those are just estimates, for now anyway.

Another thing that bears mentioning: the fighters at Matsushima were a very visible sign of the damage done by the tsunami. Photos of the planes, tossed around the air base like broken toys, were a reminder of nature’s power over man’s destructive power. Repairing the planes would be symbolic of the enduring spirit of man. It would also be a gesture to the SDF, which did excellent work during the crisis, that their property is important too.

According to the ministry, it was judged that the jets could not be scrambled in time and that a forced take-off might have endangered lives. That decision is understandable. Nevertheless, many citizens will find it hard to simply accept such a huge loss of taxpayers’ money and spending.

If the Asahi has concerns about  the cost of modern combat aircraft — and most sane people should — this is not the time to express that concern. Not scrambling the 18 F-2 fighters guaranteed that their aircrews would not become casualties because of mid-air collisions, earthquake runway damage, or something missed during takeoff. Would the Asahi rather have chanced it and maybe lost an aircrew or two, just to save money? It is somehow more morally responsible to risk pilot’s lives to save money instead of paying for expensive airplanes?

What measures were taken to plan and prepare equipment to deal with a tsunami? The ministry cannot evade responsibility by saying the disaster was “unexpected.” Isn’t it responsible for the failure to act? Before spending a total of 1 trillion yen for the purchase of next-generation fighter jets, I urge the ministry to examine if its handling of the March 11 disaster was appropriate and to disclose its findings.

Is the Defense Ministry responsible for the “failure to act”? That depends. How realistic is it to expect the Defense Ministry to be able to sortie all Japanese aircraft into the air ten minutes after an earthquake, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for the average 55 years between regional tsunamis?  I suspect such a plan is infeasible, and if it were would be extremely expensive. Too expensive for the Asahi, that’s for sure.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch