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Aerospace & Defense

Japan explores preemptive-strike option as Aegis Ashore alternative

Preemptive strikes on the table as inexpensive missile defense strategy

A North Korean missile is fired in an image released by state media. Japan is looking at preemptively striking enemy missile launchers if it is under immediate threat.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese officials will explore the development of preemptive-strike capabilities against enemy rocket launchers as a less-costly alternative to the Aegis Ashore missile shield.

The preemptive-strike option emerged as the National Security Council met Wednesday to reaffirm the suspension of the Aegis Ashore program. With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in attendance, Defense Minister Taro Kono reported that the deployment of the missile shield to Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures has been shelved.

After putting the long-delayed and costly American-developed Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense system on hold permanently, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is assembling a team to look at alternatives, including the preemptive strike option. The LDP will submit a recommendation next month to the central government.

Alternatives to Aegis Ashore include expanding the fleet of Aegis-equipped warships or building artificial megafloat structures to stage Aegis systems offshore. But both options involve massive spending.

Unlike the high cost and lack of reliability of shooting down rockets in flight, striking launch facilities beforehand would be cheaper and easier, say some in defense circles. The LDP floated similar proposals in 2013 and 2018 when discussing revisions to the national defense program.

Japan is considered the "shield" in its long military alliance with Washington, often called a "sword and shield" relationship. The U.S. is the "sword" that launches attacks while Tokyo focuses on defense. But that security concept has come into question as of late.

"This is not a security environment where we can simply attach the 'sword and shield' characterization," Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said Tuesday.

There is already a plan for acquiring hardware capable of preemptive strikes. The defense ministry decided to introduce long-range cruise missiles to the arsenal in 2017.

The missiles, which have a range of 900 km, would be fired from Japan Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets. The government, however, maintains the missiles are not for the purpose of attacking enemy bases. Some in the LDP have argued in favor of possessing land and sea-based cruise missiles.

The government cited production delays and hefty cost increases needed to protecting nearby residential areas from falling booster rocket debris. Officials will discuss what to do with the 173 billion yen ($1.6 billion) worth of contracts already closed in relation to the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore system.

"This is a de facto withdrawal" from Aegis Ashore, said a senior government official.

Further complicating the situation is the mounting complexity of tracking projectiles. Some rockets use solid propellants that make initial launches harder to detect. Other missiles are being developed to fly at faster speeds and course variations that enable them to evade being shot down.

"It will become harder to intercept missiles," said a source involved in national defense.

The right of a nation to defend itself, as enumerated in Article 51 of the United Nation's charter, is widely interpreted to apply preemptive strikes as well. Japan has long maintained its constitution allows for attacks on enemy bases.

"I don't believe the constitution intends for us to sit and wait for our own destruction," Ichiro Hatoyama, Japan's then prime minister, said in 1956.

"We want to thoroughly consider the matter as a strictly defensive policy," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday.

The Japanese government has rejected the idea of possessing arms designed exclusively for attacking other nations. The category includes intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and attack carriers.

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