TOKYO — North Korea seems to have put its missiles away for now, but Japan’s conservative government wants the option to blast them away the next time they’re pointed in Tokyo’s direction. It’s a satisfying idea, but maybe not a good one.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is compiling a new set of defense guidelines that would allow Japan’s armed forces, for the first time, to develop offensive capability, and to strike first if an attack appears imminent.
Under Japan’s strictly pacifist constitution, the Self Defense Force is restricted to weaponry and tactics that are deemed defensive in nature. That means no bombers, no cruise or ballistic missiles, no armed drones — and no shooting until shot at.
That could change under the new National Defense Program Guidelines, which are expected to be finished by year’s end.
“What they are basically saying is, ‘When a potential enemy has started attacking us, then we would start offensive operations to take out their missiles, as well as their missile bases,’” says Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, in Tokyo.
North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapons test in February and later placed medium-range ballistic missiles on launch sites facing Japan. The provocative moves were accompanied with the usual threats and invective toward Tokyo, Seoul and Washington. The missiles were removed last month and the crisis seems to have eased, for now.
The chief of the LDP’s national defense division, Yasuhide Nakayama, told Yuka Hayashi of the Wall Street Journal last week that the latest missile crisis and continuing incursions into Japanese-administered waters by Chinese patrol ships have demonstrated the need to alter the current guidelines.
According to the Ministry of Defense, Japan’s armed forces are required to operate under rules oriented exclusively toward defense.
“The exclusively defense-oriented policy means that Japan will not employ defensive force unless and until an armed attack is mounted on Japan by another country, and even in such a case, only the minimum force necessary to defend itself may be used. Furthermore, only the minimum defense forces necessary for self-defense should be retained and used. This exclusively defense-oriented policy is a passive defense strategy that is consistent with the spirit of the Constitution,” states the ministry’s 2012 Defense White Paper.
Crisis or not, the review is clearly a pet project of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who pressed unsuccessfully for similar measures during his first term in 2006-2007. Abe has focused largely on economic issues since regaining office in December, but has made no secret of his desire to strengthen Japan’s armed forces and to ease constitutional restrictions on the military.
The new guidelines are not expected to recommend the development or acquisition of specific weapons systems. However, previous studies sponsored by the LDP have suggested procuring sea-based Tomahawk cruise missiles, as well as making use of U.S. intelligence gathering and communications satellites and other technologies.
The Abe administration currently plans to buy 42 advanced F-35 fighter planes, at a cost of $20.8 billion. The F-35 could function as attack aircraft, but to develop a wider offensive capability could cost Japan billions more.
Whether all that’s necessary to defend against North Korean missiles or deter other threats is unclear.
Japan already has one of the most advanced missile defenses in the world. The Maritime Self Defense Force has four Aegis destroyers – with two more on order — that are designed to shoot down ballistic missiles at high altitude. The Ground Self Defense Force has deployed shorter-range Patriot anti-ballistic missile batteries at five locations in Tokyo and Okinawa, with two more planned for later. Both systems are designed to operate seamlessly with equally robust U.S. missile defenses based in and around Japan.
North Korea is believed to have 300 or more medium-range missiles that could strike all or parts of Japan. It’s not clear if North Korea has the technology to mount them with nuclear warheads. But even with a conventional warhead, a missile strike in central Tokyo or other major city could cause considerable damage and loss of life.
Although the Aegis and Patriot systems reportedly have worked well in tests, it’s not clear how effective they would be in a real-world situation. It’s possible that even the combined U.S.-Japan defenses could be overwhelmed if North Korea managed to get enough missiles in the air at one time.
The United States, with its vast nuclear umbrella, and network of military bases in and around Japan, is obligated by treaty to come to Japan’s aid in event of attack. Should it be necessary to strike targets in, say, North Korea, the U.S. would seem to have the arsenal of long-range missiles, bombers, drones and God-knows-what-all to get it done.