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Why Japan should have the capability to counterattack enemies

Debate heats up amid scrapped Aegis Ashore plan and increasing missile threats

As Japan has scrapped a plan to deploy the Aegis Ashore missile defense system, calls are increasing for it to consider options for obtaining counterattack capabilities.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- While the debate on how to protect Japan from missile attacks gathers steam, the governing Liberal Democratic Party has come up with an idea to make the Self-Defense Forces capable of counterattacking enemy missile bases and other facilities.

The LDP presented a set of proposals including that idea to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday. The government will start a detailed study of the plans.

The concept has emerged due to the government's abrupt suspension of the deployment of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system.

Under its security alliance with the U.S., Japan has maintained a "shield and spear" strategy in which it plays the defensive role of a "shield" while relying on the U.S. "spear" for offensive operations when necessary. Japan deciding to establish a counterattack capability -- such as medium-range missiles -- would mean a change to this longstanding arrangement.

While the issue of counterattack capability and the suspension of the deployment might appear unrelated, they are actually inseparable. To get straight to the conclusion, Japan is in a severe security situation where it must consider possessing counterattack capacity.

The government maintains the position that if another country has begun preparing the use of force against Japan, it is constitutionally allowed to resort to military action to prevent such an attack even before suffering actual damage. But as the constitution bans Japan from provoking war, the word "counterattack capability" should be used in this discussion.

There are two reasons why Japan should be capable of counterattacking enemy bases and other targets. First, the existing missile defense system alone can no longer defend the country because threats posed by not only conventional missiles, but also nuclear missiles have become real. According to sources from the Japanese and U.S. governments, North Korea has possibly already deployed nuclear missiles.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen at a military parade in Pyongyang. Photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on Feb. 9, 2018.   © Reuters

While a nuclear missile is much more destructive than a conventional one, a senior SDF official said the existing missile defense system "cannot shoot all missiles down if they come in large numbers at one time."

Furthermore, warheads for missile defense each cost billions of yen, or tens of millions of dollars. The number Japan can possess is limited in terms of its defense budget. If an armed conflict drags on, there will be a risk that Japan may run out of missile defense warheads.

Japan thus should pursue a strategy of deterrence -- consisting of the missile defense system and the SDFs' counterattacking capabilities -- to make countries such as North Korea refrain from attacking.

A second reason is that China is leading the U.S. in missile capability in Asia and the gap is widening. China has reportedly deployed some 2,000 medium-range missiles covering Japan and other countries.

In contrast, the U.S. had been banned from deploying such ground-based missiles for about 30 years under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty from which Washington withdrew in the autumn of 2019. The U.S. cannot compete with China in the number of missiles in the Asia-Pacific region because only those carried by American military planes and ships are available.

In the administration of Barack Obama, the previous U.S. president, some officials, therefore, began to consider the idea that Japan's SDF should develop counterattacking capabilities to supplement U.S. missile strike capacity in case of a military contingency involving Japan.

When Donald Trump took office, a former senior official in the Obama administration encouraged Japan behind the scenes to kick off studies on counterattacking capabilities, saying that Trump would not oppose the move, according to people familiar with the matter.

Other experts also argue for Tokyo to beef up its defense posture in close coordination with Washington.

"It makes sense for Japan to have missile strike capability, especially one integrated with U.S. plans and systems," said Elbridge A. Colby, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development until 2018.

"In the case of conflict, this will give Japan -- alongside the United States -- the ability to target airfields and other military facilities, including those used against Japan. This is vital because of the scale of the PLA (China's People's Liberation Army) buildup -- the United States will be very hard-pressed to do this on its own."

A question then is what kinds of counterattack capability Japan should have. Answers vary depending on what the country will do.

There are two broad options:

1. Being capable of finding the whereabouts of enemy missiles and using airstrikes to destroy them with precision-guided bombs and other weapons.

2. Refrain from going that far, but be capable of counterstriking fixed enemy facilities such as runways, ammunition depots and chain-of-command systems.

Masashi Murano, a Japan Chair fellow at the Hudson Institute in the U.S., who is familiar with military strategy, says the second option is practical. As most of the missiles deployed by China and North Korea are readily mobile, the establishment of a system to track them for attacking with surgical precision will require huge amounts of money and manpower for gathering information and upgrading air power, he said.

If Japan adopts the second option, the U.S. will be able to focus on attacking mobile missiles, Murano said, adding that Japan will have opportunities to proactively participate in the operational planning process.

In that case, close coordination between Japan and the U.S. will be required.

There is another crucial issue that should not be left behind: how to defend SDF bases exposed to the risk of being attacked.

Even if the SDF is given counterattack capabilities, those will be meaningless if their facilities are destroyed.

"The debate on Japanese missile defense tends to lean toward Japan's active defense measures, such as procuring enemy base attack capabilities or alternatives to Aegis Ashore," said Jeffrey W. Hornung, a political scientist at Rand Corp. in the U.S.

"These measures are very important, and a balance is needed, but the discussion has tended to ignore the need for passive defense measures to protect these facilities to ensure they can continue the fight against an adversary. This includes things like hardening runways, fuel lines, and fuel and munition depots, resiliency in radars and communication links, and greater use of deception capabilities."

The defense capabilities required by Japan will change in line with developments in the Asia-Pacific region. It is important for Japan to precisely analyze threats, find deficient defense capabilities and fill them. The work requires calm and scientific thinking that is diametrically opposite to baseless ideological arguments.

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