WASHINGTON -- The U.S. intends to continue talks with Japan to move forward with deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile shield, David Helvey, acting assistant defense secretary, said Thursday, in the first remarks by a senior U.S. official since Tokyo decided to halt the program.
Noting that Japan announced a suspension, not cancellation, Helvey, who specializes in Indo-Pacific security, said the two countries are "engaged in technical discussions" to put the project back on track.
The key stumbling block is the modifications necessary to the system to ensure that booster rockets carrying interceptors would not fall in a nearby residential area. Japan has put that cost at more than $1.8 billion.
The comments are in stark contrast to the stance of Japan, which appears all but determined to ditch the program, whose cost has snowballed since the initial estimate of $2.1 billion.
For the U.S., the Aegis Ashore project represents not just an arms purchase but a key piece of its larger security puzzle. Washington had hoped that if Japan could take a bigger role in protecting itself, it could shift some resources to other hot spots such as the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
"Let's just say for now that we are in discussions with the government of Japan, to find the right way forward for both sides, as part of this alliance," he said in a teleconference with reporters from Nikkei and other outlets.
"I would note that Aegis Ashore provides certain advantages to the alliance and to the government of Japan and the people of Japan, in particular," he said.
Japan's deployment of the land-based Aegis Ashore would complement the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. The installations would give American forces in the region flexibility by allowing Aegis-equipped ships to relocate elsewhere.
At a February 2018 House Armed Services Committee hearing, then-Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris said treaty obligations require him to deploy Aegis-equipped destroyers around the waters of Japan.
Aegis Ashore "would relieve some of the pressure that I face and the Navy faces, the Pacific fleet faces" in ballistic missile defense and let him direct a ship to "wherever it is needed at the moment," such as the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean or the Philippine Sea, said Harris, now the ambassador to South Korea.
Japan uses a two-tier system to missile defense. The first defense is a ship-based Aegis system that can shoot down missiles while they are in the so-called post-boost phase of flight. The second is a land-based Patriot system to destroy them when they are in the re-entry phase. The Aegis Ashore system would have been a third tier, providing cover especially for areas of southwest Japan.
Potential alternatives to Aegis Ashore include deploying more Aegis vessels or installing the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD -- both ideas that were previously passed over due to cost concerns. The installation of a THAAD system in South Korea infuriated China, sparking a diplomatic rift and economic retaliation.
Helvey declined to "hypothesize" about possible alternatives for Japan.
"I think right now, our focus is having the technical discussion with our Japanese allies, to understand the nature of the concerns, and to determine the right path forward for this type of cooperation," Helvey said.
On rising tensions between North and South Korea showcased by Pyongyang's destruction of a joint liaison office in Kaesong, the assistant secretary said the U.S. remains "vigilant against any types of threats and provocations."
"That's why we maintain a very close, tight, and capable alliance relationship with our South Korean partners, to ensure that we're postured to maintain an effective deterrence on the peninsula and, if necessary, to respond and to defend against North Korean threats," he said.
The clash between Indian and Chinese forces over a disputed border in the Himalayas, which New Delhi says left 20 Indian soldiers dead this week, is "something that we're watching very, very closely," Helvey said, adding that such tension has not been seen along that border in "many, many years." But he also stressed a commitment by both sides to deescalate the conflict.