Japan’s Defense Ministry Lacked a Sense of Urgency on Balloons

Airspace incursions cannot be overlooked just because they were carried out by unmanned balloons. The government should deal appropriately with unexpected new situations.

The government has announced its view that flying objects confirmed in Japanese airspace on three occasions — in November 2019, June 2020 and September 2021 — are “strongly suspected” to have been Chinese spy balloons.

All of these balloons were similar in shape to a balloon shot down by the U.S. military. The Defense Ministry made this judgment based on information obtained from the United States.

Flying a balloon into the airspace of another country without permission is nothing more than an infringement of sovereignty. It is not surprising that Tokyo asked Beijing to confirm the facts and prevent a recurrence.

However, it is deplorable that the Japanese government now suddenly claims that the balloons detected a few years ago were a threat to national security.

The balloon detected in June 2020 was witnessed by many people in Miyagi Prefecture and surrounding areas. Then Defense Minister Taro Kono explained that the balloon “had no impact on security” and said, “Please ask the balloon itself” when questioned about its destination.

At the time, the Miyagi prefectural police dispatched a helicopter. The Defense Ministry left the response entirely to the police.

What were the grounds for Kono to have stated that there was no impact on security? It is regrettable that the defense authorities lacked a sense of urgency.

The government plans to relax the criteria for the use of weapons by changing the interpretation of the Self-Defense Forces Law in preparation for a case in which a balloon or drone intrudes into Japanese airspace.

The requirements for the use of weapons have so far been limited to the “right of self-defense and an act of necessity.” The government intends to include in the requirements “protection of the lives and property of citizens on the ground” and “ensuring the safety of aircraft in flight.”

There is no denying the fear that balloons or drones may be loaded with hazardous materials. If they fall, they could cause serious damage. There is also a possibility that they could be used to obtain important information related to security or interfere with civilian aircraft.

It is understandable that the government intends to change its interpretation of the law in order to respond to new threats. It is vital to establish guidelines on the assumption of dealing with balloons or drones and confirm the procedures.

Technical challenges remain in dealing with balloons.

Balloons that fly at high altitudes and move little are difficult to detect by radar. It is also absolutely necessary to identify whether they are unmanned or manned before deciding to shoot them down. It is essential that Japan and the United States work together to enhance airspace detection capabilities.

It is difficult to shoot down an object flying at a low speed — such as a balloon — from a high-speed fighter jet. It is hoped that pilots will continue to train and acquire a high level of skill.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 17, 2023)