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A Joint Strike Missile developed by Norway's Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace with U.S. contractor Raytheon, in an artist's rendering from Raytheon's website.
North Korea Crisis

Japan eyes air-to-surface missiles that would put North Korea in range

Strike capability could conflict with Tokyo's defense-only principle

TOKYO -- Japan looks to deploy its first air-to-surface missiles in the coming years as a means of deterring North Korea from further weapons testing, bringing Pyongyang's missile bases within Tokyo's military reach.

The Ministry of Defense will request several billion yen (1 billion yen equals $8.8 million) in the nation's fiscal 2018 budget for Joint Strike Missiles from Norway's Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace. These would be deployed as early as fiscal 2019 on 42 cutting-edge F-35 stealth fighters Japan has commissioned, several of which have already been delivered.

The missiles' range of around 500km far exceeds that of the precision-guided bombs carried by the Air Self-Defense Force's F-2 fighter fleet, which is "20-30km at the most," according to an ASDF veteran.

Japan will also consider introducing the extended-range version of U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin's Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM, which features a roughly 1,000km range. F-15 fighters would be retrofitted to carry the weapons, which F-35s would also get. The Defense Ministry will request funds to study the modifications in the fiscal 2018 budget and aims to have the overhauled aircraft in operation by fiscal 2023.

The missiles are to be deployed on the F-35A fighter developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Lockheed Martin.

The ministry has said the weapons will be used "exclusively for defensive purposes" -- taking back outlying Japanese islands in the event of occupation by a foreign military, for example. But one of the most likely flashpoints -- the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyu -- is just 400km or so off the main island of Okinawa. "Defending the islands does not require a 1,000km range," a ministry official said.

Next step

The true purpose of such heavy weaponry likely is to deter North Korea from firing off additional ballistic missiles or conducting more nuclear tests. The threat posed by Pyongyang's missile program has grown significantly over the past year, with both the simultaneous launches of multiple missiles and the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could be launched at high-angle or "lofted" trajectories, sacrificing range for height and a speedy descent into Japanese territory. Many in the government here believe that air-to-surface missiles could be used to attack North Korean missile bases -- a prospect that could keep Pyongyang from further flexing its muscles.

For Japan to obtain base strike capability could lead to changes in how its military alliance with the U.S. operates. American forces have so far taken on offensive functions, while the Japan Self-Defense Forces, bound by a national defense-only ethos, have handled defensive tasks.

On the other hand, the U.S. would likely welcome Japan introducing either of the air-to-surface missiles it is considering, according to a source familiar with the matter. President Donald Trump spoke of Japan purchasing "massive amounts of military equipment" in a November news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Both missile models involve U.S. companies. The JASSM is made by Lockheed, and Kongsberg's JSM was developed in cooperation with Raytheon.

But securing base strike capability will take more than a few missiles. Determining where missile bases are and then taking out North Korean networks and allied defenses would require a broad, comprehensive network of facilities on the Japanese end, a former ASDF general said.

Deploying all the necessary equipment could violate the defense-only principle, as might a base strike itself. The government will need to make a compelling case to lawmakers and voters to ensure that such steps are legitimate.

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