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The Nikkei View

If not Aegis Ashore, Japan needs an alternative shield

East Asian security rests on a knife-edge as US-North Korea talks stall

A personnel shortage is among the factors making it difficult to operate Aegis vessels around-the-clock. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono announced Monday that the country's deployment of the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system will be put on hold.

But the risk of a ballistic-missile attack from the likes of North Korea has not subsided. The Japanese government must offer a credible explanation to the public on how it intends to build its missile defense shield.

Currently, the first line of defense against ballistic missiles flying over the Sea of Japan is a ship-based version of the Aegis Combat System. Guided-missile destroyers equipped with high-powered radars locate and intercept ballistic missiles in their post-boost phase.

Any projectile that survives this first line is then targeted by Patriot missiles stationed on Japanese soil.

But a personnel shortage and other factors make it difficult to operate Aegis vessels around-the-clock. Aegis Ashore, which uses the same system but on land, was proposed to cover gaps.

Japan intended to install Aegis Ashore in two locations: Akita Prefecture in the north, and Yamaguchi Prefecture in the south.

But locals in Akita opposed the plan for its proximity to a residential area. Further eroding trust was the fact that the government employed Google Earth to select the spot, rather than on-the-ground surveys.

An Aegis Ashore system is tested in Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

After a string of missteps, including a Defense Ministry official falling asleep at an explanatory meeting for residents, the prefecture refused to give the system the green light.

Opposition lawmakers also have questioned a lack of transparency regarding the project's cost. The price of key parts that Japan procures from the U.S. rose after Tokyo decided to implement the system.

Given these circumstances, Japan had little chance to find a new location and win local approval quickly. There was no choice but to halt the process for now.

However, Japan still needs to fortify its missile defense capabilities somehow. Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang on North Korea's nuclear and missile development have stalled, and the East Asian security environment rests on a knife-edge.

Though there are many factors Japan needs to consider, including the safety of Self-Defense Forces equipment and the country's dire fiscal condition, the issue cannot be put off indefinitely. Political leadership is required.

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