Offensive Strike in Asia: A New Era?

 In Industry, Acquisition, & Innovation, Defense, Air, Japan

There has been both applause and anx­i­ety in the wake of reports that Japan is con­sid­er­ing the devel­op­ment of long-range mis­sile sys­tems. The move would be a sig­nif­i­cant shift in the country’s capa­bil­i­ties, and it has alarmed many Japanese who believe that the acqui­si­tion would trans­form their country’s mil­i­tary pro­file and could desta­bi­lize the nation and the region — and many others through­out East Asia share that appre­hen­sion.

But in the U.S. secu­ri­ty com­mu­ni­ty, the pre­dom­i­nant response has been cheers and celebration. This should come as no sur­prise: Washington has long pressed Tokyo to do more for its defense and to acquire capa­bil­i­ties that allow it to con­tribute more to region­al secu­ri­ty. The news has also received strong sup­port in the United States because it fol­lows the Japanese government’s unex­pect­ed and dis­ap­point­ing deci­sion to scrap plans to buy an American-made mis­sile defense system, Aegis Ashore, as a result of high costs, tech­ni­cal issues, and public oppo­si­tion — includ­ing from local chap­ters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — in cities where the system was to be deployed.

Is this reason to cel­e­brate? Our answer is a cau­tious and qual­i­fied “yes.” From a U.S. per­spec­tive, the acqui­si­tion of offen­sive strike options by allies makes sense only if they are devel­oped within an alliance frame­work and with proper guardrails, and if they are deployed in con­sul­ta­tion and coop­er­a­tion with allies and part­ners. No ally is propos­ing to devel­op and deploy these capa­bil­i­ties with­out liais­ing with the United States, but it is unclear, for now, how these capa­bil­i­ties would be man­aged in an alliance con­text and what the impli­ca­tions would be for region­al secu­ri­ty.

There is a long way to go from a proposal by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s defense policy com­mit­tee for an “enemy bases attack capa­bil­i­ty” to a deployed mis­sile strike system. Moreover, Japan has long contemplated the devel­op­ment of such a capa­bil­i­ty. The idea emerged in the 1950s and has ebbed and flowed since, ensnared in debates over legal­i­ty and fit, given resource con­straints and public sen­ti­ment.

In recent years, how­ev­er, Tokyo has con­sid­ered the option more seri­ous­ly as North Korean and Chinese mis­sile threats have grown. In this threat envi­ron­ment, there is thus a good chance that devel­op­ment and deploy­ment will pro­ceed. But, at a min­i­mum, it is far too early for Washington to cel­e­brate — recall, for instance, that in March 2017 the Liberal Democratic Party examined but did not deliv­er on the issue.

Washington should also be cau­tious because a strike capa­bil­i­ty is not an unal­loyed good. It can strength­en region­al defense and deter­rence, but it can also detract from, or even under­mine, U.S. and allied coop­er­a­tion and coor­di­na­tion. Much, if not more, depends on how and in what con­text these new capa­bil­i­ties are acquired, deployed, and employed rather than on what they are.

If Japan does acquire mis­sile strike capa­bil­i­ties, it would not do so in iso­la­tion. Recently, Washington agreed to a sub­stan­tial length­en­ing of the range and increase in the pay­load of South Korean mis­siles, changes that would allow Seoul to strike all of North Korea and some parts of China. Just last July, Washington also agreed that Seoul would get a green light to devel­op solid fuel for space launch vehi­cles. And a few months ago Australia committed to acquir­ing long-range strike weapons, a deci­sion trig­gered by grow­ing con­cerns in Canberra about China. In short, sev­er­al U.S. allies, not just Japan, are acquir­ing strike capa­bil­i­ties.

The United States stands to ben­e­fit great­ly from these devel­op­ments, but there are poten­tial risks as well as costs that Washington should not over­look.

At first glance, the ben­e­fits to the United States appear obvi­ous. Missile threats from North Korea and China are grow­ing rapid­ly and Washington’s rela­tion­ships with both coun­tries are wors­en­ing sharply. In this envi­ron­ment, the United States would be well-served by more mil­i­tar­i­ly capa­ble allies that can help it counter these rising threats. While some may charge that such changes are insignif­i­cant rel­a­tive to the threat, the key cal­cu­la­tion is whether they would com­pli­cate an adversary’s deci­sion-making, intro­duce or add uncer­tain­ty about out­comes, and force that adver­sary to divert resources that might be used else­where. This is the logic behind Andrew Marshall’s competitive strategies approach, which he devel­oped to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War but is applic­a­ble against China today: It requires think­ing through and acting in ways that improve one’s rel­a­tive posi­tion against an adver­sary in a long-term com­pe­ti­tion.

Most opti­misti­cal­ly, a con­cert­ed effort by the United States and its allies on strike might encour­age adver­saries to nego­ti­ate: first con­fi­dence build­ing mea­sures, then restraints, and later — likely, much later — arms con­trol agree­ments. At present, how­ev­er, the pri­ma­ry goal is to regain the ini­tia­tive and turn the tables on adver­saries, which have made impor­tant advances in strate­gic con­cepts and capa­bil­i­ties in recent years.

Countering the Chinese mis­sile threat is par­tic­u­lar­ly urgent: Beijing is increas­ing­ly capa­ble of pre­vent­ing U.S. mil­i­tary access to, and abil­i­ty to maneu­ver within and around, the “first island chain,” the first geo­graph­ic bar­ri­er off the East Asian main­land that the United States has, since the 1950s, regard­ed as its pri­ma­ry line of defense in Asia. The just-published Pentagon report on China’s military and security developments, for instance, esti­mates that Beijing has field­ed approx­i­mate­ly 200 inter­me­di­ate-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile launch­ers and more than 200 DF-26 mis­siles. This is impres­sive growth: The 2019 report esti­mat­ed that Beijing had deployed 80 inter­me­di­ate-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile launch­ers and 80 – 160 DF-26 mis­siles, and the 2018 report reck­oned China had about 16 – 30 launch­ers and mis­siles. The DF-26, dubbed the “car­ri­er killer” or “Guam killer” because of its range and pre­ci­sion, can carry nuclear or con­ven­tion­al war­heads.

If allies devel­op strike sys­tems that help regain con­trol of the first island chain, then the United States should pro­mote those acqui­si­tions. Equally impor­tant, these devel­op­ments align with the recent U.S. effort to encour­age allied gov­ern­ments to take on a greater share of the defense and deter­rence burden. As stated in the Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, “The United States expects our allies and part­ners to shoul­der a fair share of the burden of respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­tect against common threats.” The acqui­si­tion of capa­bil­i­ties that allow allies and part­ners to assume more respon­si­bil­i­ty for region­al defense should be encour­aged.

In theory, then, mis­sile acqui­si­tion and deploy­ment by its Asian allies deserve U.S. sup­port. These devel­op­ments would not only help create a more favor­able bal­ance of power against adver­saries, but also pro­mote respon­si­bil­i­ty and burden-shar­ing between Washington and its allies.

On closer look, how­ev­er, there are also real prob­lems. For starters, oppor­tu­ni­ty costs: These sys­tems are expen­sive, and it isn’t clear that they are nec­es­sar­i­ly the tools to pri­or­i­tize to strength­en defense and deter­rence when fiscal belts are tight. Their price tag and deter­rence effec­tive­ness should be weighed against those of sys­tems that will not be pur­chased because of budget con­straints. They could come at the expense of efforts to boost resilience against the arguably more urgent gray-zone chal­lenges, for instance.

Development of allied mis­sile capa­bil­i­ties is also taking place in the con­text of U.S. with­draw­al from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and Washington’s desire to deploy longer range mis­siles in the region. The United States has asked allies to accept U.S. mis­siles on their ter­ri­to­ry — their response has been ambivalent at best. U.S. deploy­ments, how­ev­er, would side­step many of the oppor­tu­ni­ty costs asso­ci­at­ed with indige­nous devel­op­ment, encour­age greater part­ner­ship in the defense indus­tri­al sector, and — it should be noted — help reduce the trade imbal­ance by pro­mot­ing allied pur­chas­es of U.S. defense equip­ment.

Deploying U.S. mis­siles would also address anoth­er American con­cern that is rarely voiced out loud: the risk of an ally entan­gling the United States in a con­flict. Many U.S. strate­gists worry about an ally being embold­ened by mis­sile sys­tems and acting in ways that could lead to an unwant­ed or avoid­able con­flict with North Korea or China. This fear of Asian allies going rogue has deep roots. Washington opted for bilat­er­al alliances in the 1950s large­ly to ensure U.S. control over poten­tial­ly desta­bi­liz­ing part­ners.

Of course, times have changed, and Washington now wants to empower its allies and give them much greater agency over their own nation­al secu­ri­ty and des­tiny. Some con­cerns linger, how­ev­er, espe­cial­ly when it comes to allies acquir­ing weapons capa­ble of pro­duc­ing strate­gic con­se­quences.

Allies with greater mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty and free­dom of maneu­ver risk other prob­lems for the United States. This could height­en ten­sions among allies that are already high as a result of deep-rooted and still raw his­tor­i­cal griev­ances. The Japanese-South Korean rela­tion­ship could be shaken by mis­sile devel­op­ments by either coun­try.

In pri­vate dis­cus­sions, Japanese strate­gists note that South Korea’s longer-range mis­siles not only threat­en North Korea and parts of China but put Japan in range as well. A small group of South Korean strate­gists is quick to note that they worry as much about Japan as they do about North Korea or China. South Korean experts also warn that since their con­sti­tu­tion defines the Korean Peninsula as a single coun­try, a Japanese attack on the North would tech­ni­cal­ly be an attack against the South, too. While South Korean experts indi­cate in closed-door meet­ings that their gov­ern­ment would likely accept a Japanese attack on the North in some cir­cum­stances, they also make clear that it would be deeply con­tro­ver­sial because, legal­ly speak­ing, it would mean an attack on the Korean nation and fuel the belief that Japan is implaca­bly hos­tile to Korea and deter­mined to keep it divid­ed.

The risk, in short, is that mis­sile capa­bil­i­ties could stoke ten­sions among U.S. allies and under­mine defense coop­er­a­tion and the deter­rence that it cre­ates.

Finally, these capa­bil­i­ties could encour­age allies to choose self-help and aban­don the United States by devel­op­ing inde­pen­dent nuclear weapons. Reflecting on Australia’s recent deci­sion to devel­op long-range mis­siles, for instance, one ana­lyst has explained that “that pos­si­bil­i­ty now moves fur­ther out of the shad­ows.” If an ally decid­ed to go down that path, others could follow — a devel­op­ment that could unrav­el the U.S. alliance system and eclipse the role of the United States as Asia’s secu­ri­ty guar­an­tor.

Fortunately, allies inter­est­ed in mis­sile strike sys­tems have dis­cussed them within the frame­work of their alliance with the United States. The latest report of the Track‑1.5 U.S.-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue, for instance, notes that allies have con­sis­tent­ly advanced their var­i­ous deter­rence requests within the frame­work of these long­stand­ing arrange­ments, not out­side or in oppo­si­tion to them.

In addi­tion, allies are pur­su­ing com­ple­men­tary sys­tems. Japan, for instance, wants to aug­ment its bal­lis­tic mis­sile defense system to deter adver­saries from launch­ing attacks on its ter­ri­to­ry. The goal is to min­i­mize incom­ing mis­siles as much as pos­si­ble before they are launched and knock out sur­vivors in the air, while rely­ing on the United States for more gen­er­al defense. South Korea and Australia, too, are dis­cussing — to an extent — their mis­sile projects with the United States and making sure that they improve the over­all alliance defense and deter­rence pos­ture.

Crucially, though, allies seem to favor devel­op­ing and deploy­ing “their” mis­siles over host­ing U.S. mis­siles, in large part because they assess that they would have more con­trol over these capa­bil­i­ties. Plainly, allies feel a need to hedge against a poten­tial­ly unpre­dictable United States.

Washington should make sure that allies pro­ceed with mis­sile strike devel­op­ment and deploy­ment plans within their alliance frame­works. This is vital­ly impor­tant to Washington because these weapons are capa­ble of pro­duc­ing strate­gic effects and, there­fore, strate­gic con­se­quences. This demands that an acqui­si­tion deci­sion be thought through in an alliance con­text before it is made. The United States and its ally should con­duct a thor­ough assess­ment of a decision’s ben­e­fits, risks, and costs. Opportunity costs should be dis­cussed, too, and con­sid­er­a­tion given to how allied mis­sile sys­tems would com­ple­ment U.S. sys­tems planned for deploy­ment in the region. Ideally, then, the acqui­si­tion of strike sys­tems by allies would plug a gap (i.e., it would pro­vide an alliance solu­tion to an alliance prob­lem).

Moreover, arrange­ments should be made to ensure that these sys­tems would be used only in cer­tain cir­cum­stances — prefer­ably by mutual con­sent or, at a min­i­mum, with prior coor­di­na­tion — and there should be con­sul­ta­tions among allies as well. This “forc­ing func­tion” — oblig­ing the United States and its allies to think sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly about ends and means, along with new deci­sion-making process­es to better bal­ance respon­si­bil­i­ties and capa­bil­i­ties — could be the most valu­able part of the acqui­si­tion of strike sys­tems.

In an increas­ing­ly con­test­ed Asian secu­ri­ty envi­ron­ment, the United States will ben­e­fit from more mil­i­tar­i­ly capa­ble allies. But Washington should not ignore the poten­tial risks and costs, and it should work hard with its allies to mit­i­gate them. The United States and its allies, in fact, should regard this task not as a chal­lenge, but as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to tight­en their rela­tion­ships fur­ther.

David Santoro is vice pres­i­dent and direc­tor for nuclear policy at the Pacific Forum. He is com­plet­ing an edited volume on the U.S.-Chinese strate­gic nuclear rela­tion­ship and the impact of the mul­ti­po­lar con­text (Lynne Rienner, 2021). You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidSantoro1.

Brad Glosserman is deputy direc­tor of and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advi­sor (non­res­i­dent) at the Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

Image: U.S. Navy

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