Defense Perspective: Proposals / Counterattack capabilities vital for deterrence

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A PAC-3 surface-to-air missile system is seen at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo in October.

The government will by the end of this year revise three key security-related documents — the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Program Guidelines, and the Mid-term Defense Program — aiming to significantly strengthen the nation’s defense capabilities. What must be done before this major change in Japan’s postwar security policy? The Yomiuri Shimbun will present its proposals in this series.


With North Korea’s successive missile launches and progress in missile-related technologies, Japan is faced with limitations in its missile defense capabilities.

At the unusual time of around 2:45 a.m. on Oct. 14, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with senior officials from the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry at the prime minister’s official residence. About an hour earlier, North Korea had launched a ballistic missile. The missile was estimated to have flown about 650 kilometers on an irregular trajectory.

Kishida, already neatly in suit and tie, frowned as he inspected the drawing of the missile’s flight path. He demanded a detailed explanation, asking, “Which part is new?”

The government is extremely sensitive to a missile on an irregular trajectory as it makes the projectile difficult to detect and intercept.

Japan’s missile defense system is supported by eight Aegis-equipped ships and 34 PAC-3 surface-to-air missile systems. The decision to construct the missile defense system was made in 2003. Initially, it was built on the assumption that it would intercept missiles flying on simple parabolic trajectories.

North Korea has launched more than 50 ballistic missiles this year. Japan is also in range of China’s about 1,900 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In light of these threats, Japan must enhance its deterrence by possessing counterattack capabilities to destroy enemy missile-launch sites and other facilities for self-defense.

“The most powerful defense,” as a senior Defense Ministry official has put it, is to make the enemy alarmed about counterattacks to deter it from launching an attack.

To quickly increase the effectiveness of counterattack capabilities, it will be important to introduce the Tomahawk, a U.S.-made cruise missile that has proven its effectiveness, in addition to the development of domestically produced long-range missiles.

In 1956, the government presented its view in its reply in the Diet that the nation could possess counterattack capabilities. But this notion had long been considered politically taboo.

The era in which such a posture — where Japan is seen as a lightly armed nation that depends on the United States as the “spear” while it focuses on assuming the “shield” in the security alliance — is acceptable has ended, however.

Washington, for its part, is calling on Tokyo to take a more proactive role in the alliance while making arrangements to comply with Japan’s requests to procure Tomahawk missiles.

Aiming to drastically strengthen the nation’s defense capabilities, Kishida still intends to maintain the country’s “exclusively defense-oriented policy.” However, the development of defense capabilities should not be excessively restricted by that idea.

Kishida holds the view: “Japan will defend itself against aggression to the end. It will stick to the idea that such action will be an exclusively defense-oriented policy.”

The term “exclusively defense-oriented policy” was first used in the Diet in July 1955 in a reply from Arata Sugihara, director general of the then Defense Agency. The term was clarified in 1970 in the Defense of Japan white paper, written under the direction of the agency’s director general at the time, Yasuhiro Nakasone.

That white paper clearly stated that the scale of defense capabilities must be within what is deemed necessary and appropriate for self-defense. As for items that would be restricted constitutionally, it cited examples such as long-range bombers, aircraft carriers with offensive capabilities, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), stating that Japan could not possess anything that will pose the threat of aggression to other countries. Yet, the restrictions were limited.

Throughout the 1970s, however, when the ideological confrontation between the conservative and reformist camps intensified, the exclusively defense-oriented policy was used as an excuse by the reformist forces, which insisted on unarmed neutrality in their denouncing of the government. In 1973, the Japan Socialist Party deliberately distorted the interpretation of the aerial refueling system that extends aircraft flying range. JSP members strongly opposed having U.S.-made F-4 fighter jets adopted by the Self-Defense Forces be equipped with the refueling system, saying that such aircraft “will pose a serious threat to neighboring countries and may exceed the scope of the exclusively defense-oriented policy of the country.” As a result, agreement was not reached on whether the aircraft would be equipped with the aerial refueling system.

“To win over the opposition parties and public opinion, the government put a series of restrictions on the development of the country’s defense capabilities, only to find itself entangled in such restrictions,” said Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University.

He proposes that the government “should consider the most desirable security policy by sorting out restrictions under international law, the Constitution, and the nation’s policies.”

Amid a harsh security environment, how can the exclusively defense-oriented policy prevent enemy aggression? The government and ruling parties have a responsibility to debate this issue sincerely and unchain the SDF from such distorted restrictions.