By Gordon Arthur
From 22 July ‘till 4 August 2023, Australia hosted the largest-ever Exercise Talisman Sabre. This biennial exercise saw the record participation of 13 nations and more than 34,500 personnel, among them some 480 Japanese soldiers and 610 sailors. Small Arms Defense Journal observed members of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB), an elite unit of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF), during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023. These Japanese marines were armed with the Type 20 5.56mm assault rifle, as in fact the ARDB was the very first Japanese unit to receive the new weapon.
This article examines the Type 20 5.56mm assault rifle. Indeed, it was appropriate that SADJ witnessed it in the hands of Japan’s ARDB, since one of the premises of the weapon’s design was to provide this amphibious unit with a weapon possessing greater durability and longevity than the incumbent Type 89. The rifle is, thus, more corrosion-resistant and less prone to malfunctions caused by water, sand, and dust, for example. Indeed, the rifle can be fired even after being immersed in water.
The JGSDF has been undergoing far-reaching changes as it plays catch-up in the transition from the Cold War to an era of regional threats where China has replaced the Soviet Union and North Korea as the most serious danger. Tokyo feels that its southwest archipelago is vulnerable to Chinese aggression, and this was the leading reason to create the ARDB for remote-island amphibious operations.
Another reason to introduce the newer and more capable assault rifle was that the Type 89 is showing its age. The JGSDF has been armed with the Type 89 as its main assault rifle since 1989, meaning it has been in service for nearly 35 years. The Type 20 uses the same 5.56x45mm caliber, while its name indicates that it was formally adopted into Japanese military service in 2020. Indeed, the Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced its nomenclature on 18 May 2020.
The Type 20 was developed by Howa Machinery Limited, the same Japanese armaments firm that once produced the Type 89. The Japanese MoD commenced a search for the Type 89’s replacement back in August 2014. The following year, from January ‘till March, the MoD procured different weapons for thorough testing. Weapons sampled at that time included the SIG Sauer SIG516 and SIG716, Heckler & Koch (H&K) G36V and HK416, and the SCAR-H and SCAR-L from FN.
However, against this backdrop of foreign designs a new rifle design emerged from Howa, for which a patent was filed on 15 May 2015 under the name Howa5.56. A modified design of this weapon was patented shortly thereafter on 25 September 2015. After this initial sampling of possible replacements, the Japanese MoD got down to business with even more thorough testing in 2018. Two foreign contenders – the HK416 and SCAR-L – took on the domestic offering from Howa in a battery of rigorous tests that encompassed weapon performance, logistics, and cost. It is understood that all weapons passed stipulated performance criteria, but the local weapon always enjoyed a favored position. It was duly announced on 6 December 2019 that Howa had been selected to replace the JGSDF’s inventory of assault rifles.
The first production batch of Type 20 rifles was ordered under the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY2020) budget, which saw 3,283 rifles procured for JPY 900 million. Based on these figures, unit cost of the Type 20 rifle is approximately JPY 274,000 (which equates to USD 1,890 at current exchange rates); note that this price covers procurement, maintenance, and operating costs.
According to Japanese MoD budget documents since then, another 3,342 rifles were procured in FY2021 and 2,928 in FY2022. The latest order covering FY2023 encompassed 8,577 Type 20 rifles with a budget of JPY 3.3 billion (USD 23.3 million). This means, by the end of FY2023, a total of 18,130 Type 20 rifles had been ordered for Japanese troops.
It is unknown how many weapons the JGSDF will eventually require, since the MoD tends to buy equipment in small annual batches. It is known, though, that at the end of FY2023 the JGSDF has 150,245 regular personnel plus 7,981 ready reserves. With such personnel numbers, the JGSDF needs some 150,000 weapons, and this does not include requirements for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Howa produced approximately 140,000 Type 89 rifles, although the preceding Type 64 persisted in some units.
No exports of the Type 20 have been recorded so far, although Howa’s Deputy General Manager Kazuhiro Kimura said earlier this year that some foreign countries had inquired about possibly procuring it. All exports are regulated by the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA), an organ of the MoD.
Japan has an extensive defense industry able to cater to most of the JGSDF’s needs in terms of small arms. Traditionally, different firearm types were assigned to specific companies. Thus, Howa Machinery Limited has been responsible for rifles since the end of World War II, while MinibeaMitsumi makes handguns and submachine guns, and Sumitomo Heavy Industries manufactured machine guns. Incidentally, in 2013 the latter was found guilty of falsifying test data related to its machine guns for the previous 40+ years.
The progeny of the Type 20’s design is unclear, but it may have been influenced by foreign designs like the FN-SCAR and HK433. Many aspects of the design, such as the short-stroke gas piston system, remain the same as the Type 89. The gas block has a manually adjustable gas regulator. However, there are obvious advances in the weapon, including the aforementioned corrosion resistance, as well as the presence of integral Picatinny rails on a Japanese rifle for the first time, and ambidextrous controls.
Another important distinguishing feature is that it is more compact than the Type 89 in an effort to make easier to wield. According to data provided by Howa Machinery Limited, the Type 20 weighs 3.5kg (7.72 lb.) and, with the telescopic stock fully extended, it is 851mm (33.5 in.) long (779mm (30.67 in.) retracted). This is significantly shorter than the 920mm-long (36.22 in.) Type 89. The barrel is 330mm (13 in.) long, a sizeable 90mm (3.54 in.) shorter than the Type 89. The two-stage trigger has a pull weight of 2.83kg (6.24 lb.). The barrel rifling is right hand with six grooves, with one turn every seven inches. While the rifle’s weight remains the same as the Type 89, the center of gravity has shifted more towards the grip.
The Type 20 has a telescopic stock with adjustable cheek and shoulder pads, and a vertical foregrip with integral bipod that can be removed with a quick-release fitting. There are five steps in the telescopic stock, giving users a good range of customization options. The magazine catch, safety selector, and bolt release are fitted on both sides so the rifle can be used easily by left- or right-handers. The cocking handle can also be set to either side, though spent casings are only ejected from the right side (a brass deflector protects left-handed shooters).
The fire control selector offers three choices in Japanese characters: “A” is safe, “Ta” is semiautomatic, and “Re” is fully automatic. The design could be simplified by eliminating the unpopular three-round burst mode that is available on the Type 89, for example. The weapon’s cyclic rate of fire is listed as 650 rounds per minute, the same as the Type 89. A muzzle velocity of around 900m/s provides soldiers with an effective firing range of 300m, while its maximum effective range is given as 500m.
Soldiers used to attach accessories such as lights with vinyl tape to the Type 89, but this will not be necessary with the Type 20, since there are 20mm Picatinny rails top and bottom, while M-LOK slots are at the 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions.
There are foldable iron sights, while the standard variable-power telescopic sight is made by Deon Optical Design Corporation, a Japanese company formed only in 2004. The actual scope is the March-F 1x-8x24mm Shorty. Offering up to 8x magnification, this scope is 212mm (8.35 in.) long and weighs 460g (16.23 oz.). Deon Optical Design claims it “is the world’s lightest and shortest scope with 8x magnification ratio”. It has an illuminated reticle and 100-yard fixed focus. Funnily enough, on all the Type 20 rifles that SADJ observed with the ARDB in Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023, none were fitted with this particular sight. Most had no scopes whatsoever fitted.
Ammunition is fed from 30-round box magazines, and rifles fire the same ammunition as the Type 89. Interestingly, the magazines are the Magpul PMAG 30 M3 Window. These plastic magazines will not rust, and their transparent window shows users how many rounds remain.
Importantly, however, a new 5.56x45mm cartridge known as the J-3 high-power cartridge was developed specifically for the Type 20 weapon. The J-3 was designed by the ammunition and precision engineering division of the Japanese company Asahi-Seki. The cartridge weighs 12g (0.4 oz.), is 57.4mm long, is made from steel and red brass, and uses double-base powder. The bullet has a monolithic, high-strength material core. Even though the barrel of the Type 20 is shorter, the combination with the J-3 creates a more powerful bullet designed to penetrate modern body armor.
The JGSDF’s existing bayonet can be fitted to the Type 20, as can a Beretta GLX-160A1 under-barrel grenade launcher. The Japanese MoD slightly adjusted the GLX-160A1, which fires 40x46mm grenades, to better mount it on the Type 20.
The Type 20 will probably remain in Japanese service for at least 30 years. A constant problem for Japanese defense manufacturers such as Howa Machinery Limited has been small contracts and the absence of exports, which results in high unit costs and a lack of profitability. Komatsu Heavy Industries exited the defense manufacturing scene in 2019, for example, citing an inability to make a profit. Japan could probably have bought foreign-made rifles more cheaply than what it is paying for the Type 20, but for many countries such as Japan, the reality of possessing a sovereign defense industry is important.
Whilst on the topic of the Type 20, it is pertinent to also quickly discuss other recent developments regarding JGSDF small arms, since the inventory is otherwise being dominated by foreign weapons. Indeed, on 6 December 2019, the same time as the Type 20 was selected, the JGSDF announced selection of the H&K SFP9 as its new pistol. This pistol had been competing against the Beretta APX and Glock model 17. An initial batch of 323 SFP9 pistols was ordered under the FY2020 budget. Previously, Japan had fielded the SIG Sauer P220 produced under license by MinibeaMitsumi. However, its magazine contained only nine rounds, and the grip was considered too large for Japanese hands.
More recently, on 23 January 2023, the MoD announced that it had selected the H&K G28 E2 7.62mm sniper rifle, and the FN Herstal Minimi Mk3 5.56mm light machine gun. Approximately 900 semiautomatic G28 E2 s will be acquired, to supplement 1,304 Remington Arms M24 sniper rifles procured from 2002-18.
The JGSDF acquired 4,922 Minimi Mk1 5.56mm light machine guns from 1993-2017, these produced under license by Sumitomo Heavy Industries. Japan will now import around 3,100 newer Minimi Mk3 weapons from Belgium. Oddly, the JGSDF does not currently operate any 7.62mm machine gun, and this has led to concerns that Japanese troops would be outranged by an adversary.