TOKYO -- Japan is planning to upgrade and extend the capability of its cruise missiles to hit objects over 1,000 kilometers away, Nikkei has learned.
The defense ministry aims to deploy such missiles by the second half of the 2020s. These missiles, to be developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, can be launched from land and also fitted on fighter planes and warships. Japan's missiles are now only capable of reaching 100 km to 200 km from launch point.
This plan by the government, which it sees as a form of deterrence, comes amid increasing competition in missile development in the Asia-Pacific region. Tokyo says it has little choice but to strengthen the country's defense capabilities.
"As neighboring countries proceed with missile development, Japan will also need equipment to enhance deterrence," a senior defense ministry official told Nikkei.
Close neighbors China and South Korea are likely to frown on Japan's plans despite expanding their own programs. China has been increasing the number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can reach Japan and Guam. Beijing has, reportedly, increased the number of launchers it owns by eight times over a decade, to 82 as of 2020.
Amid rising concern over the escalation of military activities by China, the U.S. is considering a plan to deploy a missile network on the first island chain connecting Okinawa to Taiwan and the Philippines. A report by U.S. Congress recommended a dialogue to encourage partner countries to accept the deployment of U.S. intermediate range missiles in the region, in preparation for a Taiwan emergency.
China's foreign ministry has already warned that if the U.S. deploys intermediate-range missiles in the region, Beijing "has to take countermeasures." China is hoping that Japan and South Korea will also object to U.S. deployment.
South Korea in May abolished its guideline to limit the range of ballistic missiles to 800 km. North Korea already has ballistic missiles with a range of more than 1,000 km, putting Japan in its attack zone. Russia will deploy a new hypersonic missile as early as next year.
Until now, Tokyo has relied on a theory that its forces could shoot down incoming missiles. But the government has changed that strategy as military technology has advanced, making obsolete Japan's more conventional missiles. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is positive about possessing the ability to attack opponent in their territory, saying, he would "consider all options without excluding them and strengthen the necessary defense capabilities."
Japan's plan to develop its own cruise missiles with longer range risks damaging economic relations between Tokyo and Beijing.
But Tokyo sees the new weapons as allowing it to make counterattacks and to protect its rights over remote islands. The fact that these missiles have longer ranges means that its Self-Defense Forces will be able to deploy from a safer distance than it can now.
The defense ministry started to develop land-propelled missiles in fiscal 2021. In the next fiscal year, Tokyo will start testing prototypes to onboard ships and fighters. Total development cost is expected to be about 100 billion yen ($880 million).
The new missiles will also be able to track targets and strike more precisely. Japan expects to complete technical and application tests for grounded missiles by fiscal 2025. The testing of the missile prototypes that can be mounted on ships and fighter jets are expected to be completed in fiscal 2026 and 2028 respectively.
The Ministry of Defense is planning to add new details in the country's national security strategy to be revised at the end of 2022 about the development and deployment of equipment to be used in any medium-term defense.