Tensions with China bring anti-ship missile development into spotlight

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Richard Armitage

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, recognized in the United States as an authority on security in the Asia-Pacific region, contributed the following essay to The Yomiuri Shimbun in collaboration with Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. In it, they pose the question of whether Japan needs a military technology deal like the so-called AUKUS agreement among Australia, Britain and the United States. They also propose joint development of surface-to-ship missiles by Japan and the United States. The essay emphasizes the need for the two allies to strengthen their countermeasures against China’s military expansion.

The time has come for Tokyo and Washington to advance a new military technology initiative: codeveloping ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles.

Facing mounting pressure from China, the Australian government recently struck its own military technology deal with the United States and Britain. The so-called AUKUS agreement focused on a capability badly needed by Australia: nuclear-powered submarines. Some in Japan have expressed a desire to have a similar deal.

But Japan has different requirements. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force already fields highly capable domestically produced submarines. And Japan’s maritime operating locations are much closer to its own ports than Australia’s operating locations are to its ports, which minimizes the need for nuclear-powered submarines. Moreover, Japan has a much more challenging domestic debate about nuclear power.

So Japanese nuclear-powered submarines are neither strategically necessary nor politically feasible. But Tokyo and Washington still need to cooperate on defense technology because they have not responded rapidly enough to China’s military modernization. Beijing now fields the world’s largest navy. Tensions in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Taiwan Strait are rising. Yet, the alliance still appears to be struggling to respond.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Zack Cooper

What military capabilities does Japan need the most? One critical requirement is the ability to see and, if necessary, strike Chinese naval targets. In the event of a conflict in the East China Sea (or indeed the Taiwan Strait), a top priority for Japan and the United States would be tracking and neutralizing China’s surface fleet. The ability to do so effectively is not only essential to effective warfighting, but also to deterring a conflict in the first place.

Japanese and American satellites, aircraft and ships can conduct some of these missions, but all are highly vulnerable to Chinese interference. Early in a conflict, Beijing might seek to disrupt systems in space while also striking airfields and aircraft on the ground. The same is true of surface ships, which would be at risk from China’s large inventory of anti-ship missiles. Thus, it would be unwise to rely too heavily on airborne assets and naval platforms for naval strike roles.

Ground-based systems have several inherent advantages. Most importantly, they are cheaper and can therefore be fielded in larger numbers. This not only means that they can strike more targets, but also that China would have a difficult time finding their ground launchers. And since these launchers are mobile and can be hidden in tunnels or ground clutter, they are hard to pinpoint.

With this in mind, both Japan and the United States have been investing in ground-based missiles. Tokyo has developed surface to ship missile batteries, but they could benefit from enhanced interoperability with U.S. sensors. Similarly, Washington is developing a range of ground-based strike systems, but has limited locations in the Pacific to base its launchers. The allies have already shown that they can codevelop advanced missiles like SM-3 Block IIA, but at the moment there is no follow-on codevelopment program.

This is, therefore, the moment to codevelop a ground-launched anti-ship missile. Strategically, it would turn the current competition with China on its head. For many years, Beijing has been able to focus on how to use its missile forces to sink American or Japanese ships. A large inventory of longer-range Japanese and American missiles would reverse this dynamic, forcing Beijing to consider its own expensive ships being held at risk by relatively cheap missiles.

Financially, this would also be beneficial. One of the advantages that Japan and the United States maintain is that they and many like-minded governments share similar military requirements for addressing China’s military challenges. But this potential is worthless unless they cooperate to achieve the benefits of scale. Codeveloped military systems can drive down acquisition costs, which could also make them more attractive to other regional partners.

Codeveloping a ground-based missile would also send a clear signal to Beijing about Tokyo and Washington’s seriousness on meeting its military challenge. It would demonstrate that China’s pressure on its neighbors is backfiring, resulting in tightened alliances and more robust military responses. This political signal was an important component of the AUKUS deal, and would likewise be notable for the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has talked about the need for Japan to spend more on defense and to develop strike capabilities. These are decisions for the Japanese people to make, but Washington should welcome Tokyo’s willingness to consider both defense spending increases and new defense capabilities. If Japanese leaders choose to move forward with these efforts, they should make naval strike systems a priority and work with American counterparts to codevelop anti-ship cruise missiles.