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Japan must expand means to counter North Korean attacks

Time to stop relying on the US and prepare offensive capabilities

TOKYO -- With the Japanese government increasingly concerned about the growing threat of North Korean missile attacks, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun considering various countermeasures to avoid, or at least minimize, damage from them.

As part of the move, Japan is looking to acquire offensive capabilities and is planning to deploy its first F-35A, a stealth fighter jet, in the 2017 fiscal year that starts in April.

The jet is the centerpiece of this new direction, which has sparked debate over the issue.

But even with the advanced weapon, it will be nearly impossible for Japan to entirely disable North Korea's missiles before they are fired.

North Korea launched more than 20 ballistic missiles last year. It may soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile. A missile defense system with the probability of interception far below 100% is not sufficient to protect a country and its people.

I have advocated for Japan to prepare several protective measures, including the development of nationwide evacuation procedures and capabilities to attack North Korea's missile bases directly.

In a Nikkei Asian Review article dated Nov. 25, 2016, I reported that the Japanese government in October uploaded a document to a civil protection website run by Japan's Cabinet Secretariat that outlines step-by-step emergency measures people in Japan should take in the event North Korea fires missiles at the country. I also urged the government to encourage municipalities to stage evacuation exercises in line with the procedure.

Preparation is key

"We will hold a drill," a senior government official told me later that year. In January 2017, the government officially unveiled plans to conduct its first evacuation exercise in March in a coastal city in the northern prefecture of Akita. The plan is specifically aimed at the threat from North Korea.

On Jan. 26, Abe showed his intention to consider acquiring offensive capabilities. Abe was responding to a question from former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera during a budget committee meeting of the lower house of parliament.

Abe has maintained the stance that the country's pacifist constitution allows Japan to attack the bases of its enemies. But the capability to do so is still underway.

Japan's Air Self-Defense Force received its first F-35 Lightning II in November 2016 and is currently undergoing training in the U.S. The fighter jet, which is capable of avoiding radar detection, will be deployed at Misawa Air Base in northeastern Aomori Prefecture by March 2018.

But hurdles remain before the country has the capability to destroy overseas missile bases.

The first step of a typical offensive operation is to disable the enemy's radar networks and antiaircraft guns. Bombers and cruise missiles would then destroy ground facilities. These attacks are carried out while being escorted by fighter jets that intercept enemy aircraft. Reconnaissance, refueling and rescue airplanes support the attack along with airborne warning and control systems and a range of battleships.

To be able to carry out such a mission, Japan's Self-Defense Forces must undergo a number of exercises.

A multitude of moving targets

However, attacking fixed ground facilities is just half the battle. North Korea's medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the Nodong and the Musudan, are movable and can be hidden anywhere in the country, for example, in mountain tunnels.

To cripple these portable launchers, Japan would have to send special operations forces to spot the locations, that will then destroy the platform or guide jets to them. This is what the U.S. and U.K. forces did in the Gulf War.

In reality, though, it is nearly impossible to locate dozens of launchers across a country the size of North Korea in a limited amount of time and destroy them.

During the 1994 crisis on the Korean Peninsula, when tensions significantly grew among North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. over North Korea's nuclear program, U.S. forces initially considered finding and destroying North Korea's portable launchers, according to a former senior official at Japan's Defense Ministry. Ultimately, they did not proceed because there were so many caches spread across North Korea. It would have been a very difficult mission, the official said.

Once North Korea's threat goes live, Japanese forces will have to keep hunting for missile launchers even while North Korea continues to fire salvos of missiles at Japan from anywhere in the country. Anything that escapes Japan's missile defense system, or fragments of intercepted missiles, could hit Japan.

Go on the offensive

One thing to keep in mind is that a Japanese offensive attack on North Korean bases is a worst-case scenario -- one that Japan can undertake only in the case of a surprise missile attack initiated by North Korea and before other rounds of missiles are fired, and one in which Japan has no other options available.

This means that by the time Japan considers an offensive attack, the country would likely have already suffered casualties and damage.

That is why I emphasize the need for adequate evacuation exercises to be conducted nationwide. Municipalities across the country should follow Akita Prefecture's lead and conduct drills, preferably involving underground facilities already in place.

Under the Japan-U.S. security arrangement, Japan has been expected to undertake only defensive measures, while the U.S. has been in charge of offensive missions.

But, with the new stealth fighter Japan is now acquiring the capability to eliminate threats, while its long-term ally, the U.S., has entered a new era under President Donald Trump.

Under the circumstances, will the U.S. live up to its commitments?

The days of relying on the U.S. are over. Japan should prepare its own countermeasures against its enemies, including the option to attack.

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