Japan and the ability to strike enemy bases

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s research commission on security issues in late March handed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a proposal that Japan consider developing the ability to strike enemy missile bases. In receiving the proposal — a response to North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile launches — Abe said that he would like to “firmly take the proposal to heart.”

In the first place, obtaining such capabilities would not be easy, both in terms of equipment and expense. More importantly, an attempt by Japan to build up the capability to attack enemy bases could result in destabilizing the region’s security environment by giving an imagined enemy an excuse to carry out pre-emptive strikes on our country. The Abe administration needs to carefully weigh the implications of Japan taking such steps.

On whether Japan is allowed under the Constitution to attack enemy bases, the government follows the position that Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama’s administration stated to the Diet in 1956: Even under the war-renouncing Constitution, it is possible for Japan to attack enemy installations under certain limits to forestall a deadly attack like a ballistic missile attack if there is a clear and present danger that Japan would face such an attack and when there are no other means to protect the country from this danger.

The government and lawmakers must pay attention to an additional remark by Hatoyama that the statement was made from the standpoint that attacking enemy bases under normal circumstances, when other means of defense are available, would fall outside the scope of self-defense. In 1959, defense chief Shigejiro Ito stated that possessing offensive weapons on the grounds of potential danger of enemy attack as mentioned by Hatoyama runs counter to the Constitution.

To equip the Self-Defense Forces with the ability to pound enemy bases would require advanced technologies and equipment, including satellites that can detect signs of missile launches with a high degree of accuracy, aircraft and missiles that can neutralize enemy radar sites and missiles with high-precision guidance to strike the enemy bases. Such aircraft would need to be capable of approaching enemy bases by flying at a very low altitude to avoid radar detection. Possessing these kinds of technologies and equipment could go beyond the principle of defense-only security that the nation has adopted under the postwar Constitution. Acquiring this equipment would also naturally lead to sharp increases in defense spending.

Japan’s attempt to obtain capabilities to strike enemy bases could be reciprocated by potential enemies, including North Korea, potentially leading to an arms race between the two countries. Devoting large amounts of resources to the development of pre-emptive strike capabilities would distort the shape of the defense budget and the organizational arrangement of the SDF. Such moves could also fundamentally alter the division of labor under the security alliance with the United States, in which the U.S. military takes charge of the offense and the SDF handles the defensive role.

Progress in its military capabilities has enabled North Korea to fire missiles from movable launch pads and submarines. Use of solid fuel has shortened the time needed for a missile launch. North Korea has also flown a missile on a lofted trajectory, whose apogee is higher than the minimum-energy trajectory to the same range.

Lawmakers who call for development of first-strike capabilities should realize that these factors have made it extremely difficult to detect or intercept North Korean missiles. Even if Japan’s missiles were to successfully pound enemy bases in a pre-emptive attack, it is unlikely that they would destroy all of the missiles in the enemy’s possession. The enemy would be able to attack Japan with its remaining arsenal. Most importantly, a missile attack by Japan risks triggering an all-out war with the opposing nation.

Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, a member of the LDP security research commission who played a key role in compiling the proposal submitted to Abe, says the panel does not have in mind developing capabilities to carry out pre-emptive attacks on enemy bases. That is a meaningless statement. If Japan has developed capabilities to attack enemy bases, the incentive for North Korea to hit Japan before Japan hits it would be even greater. Japan possessing the proposed capabilities would not help beef up its deterrence and would instead make the security environment surrounding the nation even more insecure.

At a time when tensions between North Korea and the U.S. are rising, the LDP should stop playing around with military fantasies. Instead, the party should seriously consider how to involve Japan, the U.S., China, South Korea and Russia — the key players in the region — in concerted diplomatic efforts to avert a potential clash between the U.S. and North Korea, which could result in devastating damage to South Korea and Japan.