Reforming Tokyo’s Ballistic Missile Defense Is a Priority for Japan’s New Prime Minister

 In China, Defense, North Korea, Air, Japan, P5

With Yoshihide Suga confirmed as Japan’s new prime min­is­ter, one of the first press­ing policy choic­es that he faces con­cerns the future of Japan’s bal­lis­tic and cruise mis­sile defense (BMD) archi­tec­ture. Since Japan faces a mul­ti­tude of mis­sile threats from North Korea and China, Prime Minister Suga should pro­pose a com­pre­hen­sive solu­tion that ensures improved per­sis­tence and dis­tri­b­u­tion of BMD capa­bil­i­ties to reduce the burden on the U.S. and Japanese mar­itime units as well as other shared alliance inter­ests.

A new BMD plan would help address the gap cre­at­ed by the Japanese defense ministry’s deci­sion not to acquire two land-based Aegis Ashore (AA) sys­tems for use at sep­a­rate sites. Until June, Japan was intent on installing these sys­tems to enhance its existing BMD assets, which include a mar­itime com­po­nent of Aegis BMD-equipped naval ves­sels and land-based com­po­nents con­sist­ing of the Patriot Advanced Capability‑3 (PAC‑3) and AN/TPY‑2 Radar. Deploying Aegis Ashore would have decreased the cur­rent burden on the mar­itime units by assum­ing the major­i­ty of respon­si­bil­i­ties for pro­tect­ing Japan against North Korean bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

The Japanese Defense Ministry, how­ev­er, scrapped this plan due to grow­ing per­cep­tions among Tokyo’s lead­er­ship that there would be added costs to enhance the system’s safety mea­sures. These enhance­ments would ease a back­lash from civil­ians living near the planned AA sites, who cited con­cerns of the poten­tial damage to res­i­den­tial areas due to falling rocket boost­ers from the system’s inter­cep­tors.

An alter­na­tive solu­tion under con­sid­er­a­tion in Tokyo is plac­ing the AA’s radars and mis­sile inter­cep­tors on spe­cial­ly constructed naval ves­sels rather than on land. Moving these capa­bil­i­ties off land would resolve the local com­mu­ni­ties’ con­cerns and poten­tial­ly avoid the added costs for boost­ing safety mea­sures. However, this option still leaves Japan’s BMD archi­tec­ture with vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in its cov­er­age. Admiral Hiroshi Yamamura of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force argued that Japan’s addi­tion­al BMD capa­bil­i­ty must not be influ­enced by the weath­er or cli­mate. This is because naval ves­sels pro­vide less persistent coverage than land-based sys­tems, such as AA, since ves­sels cannot per­form their BMD func­tions in rough weath­er or sea con­di­tions.

Japan is also con­sid­er­ing the acqui­si­tion of a limited strike capability that can range enemy ships and land-based assets to deter and if nec­es­sary defeat any aggres­sive actions. These capa­bil­i­ties would be deployed to sup­ple­ment Tokyo’s mis­sile defense archi­tec­ture by cre­at­ing deterrence capabilities. This, how­ev­er, is a con­tro­ver­sial option due to Japan’s paci­fist con­sti­tu­tion, which for­bids Tokyo from acquir­ing offen­sive and power pro­jec­tion capa­bil­i­ties. Additionally, Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coali­tion part­ner, opposes the plan for this very reason.

Still, Japan needs an alter­na­tive to the mis­sile inter­cep­tion capa­bil­i­ties pro­vid­ed by land-based AA. Specifically, the replace­ment to this system should still pri­or­i­tize improved per­sis­tence and dis­tri­b­u­tion of BMD capa­bil­i­ties to increase flex­i­bil­i­ty and relieve pres­sure on mar­itime assets. This is specif­i­cal­ly impor­tant because AA would have enabled Japan to more effec­tive­ly sup­port Washington’s region­al mil­i­tary pos­ture and its efforts to deter China’s aggres­sive actions through­out the Indo-Pacific. Deploying AA to Japan aimed not only to boost Japan’s own bal­lis­tic mis­sile defense capa­bil­i­ties, but also to lessen the burden on Japanese Self Defense Force Aegis-equipped destroy­ers and allow them to con­duct other mis­sions. The deploy­ment also sought to increase the U.S. military’s flex­i­bil­i­ty to deploy its BMD-equipped naval ves­sels sta­tioned in Japan to other areas under threat of Chinese incur­sion and power pro­jec­tion, such as the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean.

It is imper­a­tive to address Admiral Yamaura’s con­cerns regard­ing cov­er­age in inter­cept­ing capa­bil­i­ties. However, the United States and Japan could alle­vi­ate these issues by strength­en­ing other ele­ments of a more com­pre­hen­sive BMD solu­tion to better antic­i­pate enemy mis­sile strikes. For instance, one area for fur­ther U.S.-Japan col­lab­o­ra­tion is the devel­op­ment and fielding of a dis­trib­uted net­work of mobile and fixed sen­sors and radars as well as satel­lites to aug­ment the alliance’s early warn­ing and detec­tion capa­bil­i­ties. Aerial drones, such as the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle, should be con­sid­ered as a pos­si­bil­i­ty for mobile options. The U.S. has been equip­ping these drones with the nec­es­sary capa­bil­i­ties to sup­port BMD mis­sions. Washington already tested this drone in the Indo-Pacific in June 2016 during the Pacific Dragon joint BMD exer­cise with Japan and South Korea.

Additionally, low-Earth orbit (LEO) satel­lites could fur­ther improve the United States and Japan’s mis­sile defense, as these satel­lites may be the only assets capa­ble of detect­ing China’s newly emerg­ing hyper­son­ic mis­siles. LEO satel­lites also can evade already deployed ground and sea-based radars as well as most mil­i­tary satel­lites thanks to their high speed and low alti­tude flight path.

Japan should also assess its abil­i­ty to detect and engage cruise mis­sile threats to crit­i­cal land-based nodes such as air­fields and logis­tics hubs. U.S. forces in Japan rely on the joint “agile combat employment” concept and on Japanese forces to pro­tect them and their facil­i­ties. This new con­cept calls for the U.S. Air Force to be able to launch, oper­ate, and main­tain fight­er jets away from its main bases and in unortho­dox loca­tions, such as allied nation air­fields and civil­ian air­ports, to evade Russian and Chinese cruise mis­sile strikes. Deploying land-based mis­sile defense assets, such as AA, would sup­ple­ment the alliance’s abil­i­ty to defend against cruise mis­siles. This cruise mis­sile defense assess­ment should also drive a number of air, ground, and mar­itime self-defense force ini­tia­tives, beyond Aegis.

To maximize the effec­tive­ness of these new addi­tions, both coun­tries should also ensure seam­less inte­gra­tion of any new capa­bil­i­ties with exist­ing ones to ensure that the alliance’s inter­op­er­a­ble com­mand and con­trol sys­tems, namely the Bilateral Joint Operations Command Center, can detect, track, assign and, if nec­es­sary, engage all incom­ing threats with the most appro­pri­ate defense capa­bil­i­ty. This will be essen­tial for the U.S. and Japan to uphold a mutu­al­ly sup­port­ing, over­lap­ping, and rein­forc­ing defense.

A final pri­or­i­ty for Japan’s new BMD plan should be to con­tin­ue efforts to inte­grate its own capa­bil­i­ties with South Korea’s mis­sile defense units. Currently, Japan and South Korea cannot share tar­get­ing data between their naval BMD units, because their ves­sels’ onboard Aegis sys­tems lack a common encryption system. As both Seoul and Tokyo face common threats from North Korea and China, exchang­ing intel­li­gence is not only crit­i­cal for sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness, but also help­ful in strength­en­ing trilateral security cooperation essen­tial to the U.S. extend­ed deter­rence pos­ture.

Washington’s allies in turn should consider adopt­ing a common encryp­tion system for their Aegis ves­sels shared with the U.S. to boost trilateral ship-to-ship inter­op­er­abil­i­ty. While recent political and economic fric­tion between Tokyo and Seoul may obstruct imme­di­ate coop­er­a­tion, Prime Minister Suga could take a cru­cial step for­ward in ameliorating ten­sions with South Korea by offer­ing this joint solu­tion to a shared secu­ri­ty issue.

Thus, Prime Minister Suga could mark his first policy suc­cess as Japan’s new leader by imple­ment­ing a robust and com­pre­hen­sive mis­sile defense plan. This will not only help Suga sta­bi­lize his lead­er­ship, but also put Japan in a better posi­tion to defend and deter against its adver­saries with the sup­port of its allies and part­ners.

Mathew Ha is a research ana­lyst focused on East Asia at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also con­tributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk. FDD is a Washington-based, non­par­ti­san research insti­tute focus­ing on nation­al secu­ri­ty and for­eign policy.

Image: Reuters.

National Interest source|articles

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