Japan’s missile defense strategy at a standstill

REUTERS/Issei Kato
Japan Self-Defence Forces soldiers prepare to refuel a unit of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo April 10, 2013. Japan has deployed ground-based PAC-3 interceptors, as well as Aegis radar-equipped destroyers carrying Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors in response to North Korea’s threats and actions, according to its government.

The government is striving to enhance its missile defense system to counter North Korea and China’s development of ballistic missiles, but little progress has been made since 2020, when it gave up on a plan to introduce the land-based Aegis Ashore missile interception system.

“We will strengthen our comprehensive missile defense capabilities to protect the entire country,” Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters Wednesday in response to a series of missile launches by North Korea.

Japan’s ballistic missile defense system involves two stages. The Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) carried by Aegis destroyers intercepts missiles outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and if that fails, the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air guided missile shoots them down.

Currently, there are eight Aegis destroyers capable of ballistic missile defense, but they are assigned to defend the Nansei Islands and other areas as well. Additional duties would put too great a burden on them. There is also a limit to what Japan can do if multiple missiles are launched at the same time.

The government considered establishing the Aegis Ashore system on land to enhance its defense capacity, but scrapped the plan due to opposition from residents near the planned sites.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An artist illustration : Japan’s ballistic missile defense

In December last year, the Cabinet approved the construction of two Aegis-equipped destroyers instead. However, the government has yet to come up with a detailed plan as it was unable to decide whether to limit the role and functions of those destroyers to missile defense. Their construction costs were not included in the budget requests for fiscal 2022.

After the introduction of Aegis Ashore was scrapped, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in June 2020 that Japan would consider possessing the capability to attack enemy bases based on the right of self-defense, for the purpose of nullifying those bases’ ability to launch missiles. But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who succeeded Abe in September of the same year, shelved the discussion.

Within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, there are strong calls to possess this capability because enhancement of Japan’s ability to counterattack in the event of an emergency is expected to discourage enemies from attacking and improve deterrence.

Taku Otsuka, the director of the LDP’s National Defense Division, said Wednesday at a joint division meeting, “Possession of the capability to attack enemy bases is an inevitable option.”

This is one of the issues under debate in the party’s presidential race.

Among the candidates for LDP president, former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi calls for the establishment of a legal framework, while former LDP Policy Research Council Chairperson Fumio Kishida is also positive about possessing the capability to attack.

In contrast, Taro Kono, minister in charge of administrative and regulatory reform, said it would be difficult to accurately ascertain and destroy mobile missile launchers. It is therefore important, Kono has said, to deepen overall debate on deterrence.