Reported critical remarks by Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka on a proposed U.S. missile defense system may be problematic as they apparently contravene Japan’s noncommittal position on the issue. Although Japan has engaged in joint technical research with the United States on the Theater Missile Defense program since 1999, Tokyo maintains a vague position on U.S. President George W. Bush’s proposal for a global missile defense scheme that would also cover the U.S., saying it only “understands” the policy, without supporting or opposing it.

While Japanese defense officials and experts privately doubt the feasibility of the proposed system, at least in a tactical sense, they also note that continued cooperation with the U.S. on the plan is important as a symbol of Tokyo’s commitment to deepening the bilateral security alliance. In his address at the National Defense University on May 1, Bush said he is committed to developing a shield against ballistic missile attacks by “some of the world’s least responsible states.”

Neither Washington nor Tokyo has clearly explained what this would mean for Japan. While Tokyo insists the ongoing joint TMD research is purely a way to enhance Japan’s defensive capabilities, Bush’s new proposal does not differentiate between a system aimed at defending U.S. allies and one that would also defend the U.S. The U.S. National Missile Defense program has triggered widespread opposition because it would render obsolete the current nuclear deterrence rationale, which has been in place since the Cold War, and may spur a new worldwide arms race.

But more importantly from Japan’s perspective is that Bush’s failure to differentiate between the TMD and NMD programs raises questions over whether Japan may be violating its self-imposed ban on collective defense by defending an ally from enemy attack. Japan’s missile defense research was accelerated by the Taepodong shock of 1998, when North Korea test-launched what is believed to be a ballistic missile over Japanese territory, highlighting the nation’s vulnerability to such attacks.

Since fiscal 1999, the Defense Agency has allocated 7 billion yen to a joint study with the U.S., termed the Navy Theater Wide Defense program, in which missiles launched from Aegis-equipped ships would intercept enemy ballistic missiles before they reach their targets. Japan has been researching interceptor missile equipment, including identification and tracking technologies, agency officials said.

The government expects the research to take five to six years and cost between 20 billion yen and 30 billion yen. It has also said “political decisions” will be needed before moving to development and deployment of the system.

Experts say the latest U.S. proposal envisages forward-deploying Aegis ships to shoot down enemy missiles, including those targeted at the U.S. mainland, immediately after their launch.

Masahiro Akiyama, a visiting scholar at Harvard University and former vice defense minister, told a recent symposium in Tokyo that Washington should clarify its missile defense plan to solidify support from its allies.

He expressed concern that should Washington proceed with the plan without clear explanations, China may boost its ballistic missile capability and threaten Japan’s security.

Japanese and U.S. officials seem unwilling to address such questions.

When Richard Armitage, U.S. deputy secretary of state, visited Tokyo last month, he merely told Japanese officials there will be no change in the joint research program and said the plan is aimed at defending Japan. Japanese officials said they did not press him on the issue.

But doubts remain within the Defense Agency and among private-sector experts as to whether the TMD system may ever be deployed — regardless of the nature of the joint research with the U.S.

“Will the missile defense work technically? I can definitely say it won’t,” said an executive engineer of a major defense equipment contractor, who is an expert on missile technology.

The executive, who was a senior Ground Self-Defense Force officer before joining the firm, said the proposed missile shield would never achieve its intended tactical effect because development of offensive missiles to break such a barrier is always faster and easier. “By the time we develop the proposed system, adversaries will have already deployed missiles twice as fast as the one our shield was supposed to deal with,” he said.

Experts are also divided over how accurate the proposed missile interception system could be.

The cost is another issue, and perhaps one that may push the notion of feasibility into the background. A senior Defense Agency official said, “Whatever else might be said, it is money (that would be an obstacle to TMD deployment).”

The estimated cost of deploying the TMD is 1 trillion yen in its initial phase, but that amount may increase by several times when the need for continual updates to keep pace with offensive missile development is considered, he said.

The nation’s defense budget for fiscal 2001 stands at 4.94 trillion yen, of which less than 1 trillion yen is allocated to equipment. The remainder is devoted to personnel, training, maintenance of facilities and other areas.

If the Defense Agency deploys the TMD without a drastic increase in defense spending, it must sacrifice the capabilities of the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces, agency officials said. But the agency is also tasked with preparing for other types of threats, including guerrilla attacks against nuclear plants, they added.

A senior GSDF officer said that while it may be impossible for Japan to actually deploy such a missile defense system, the strategy is to remain quiet on whether the system will be deployed and leave the threat of its deployment as a deterrent to potential enemies.

“(Participating in joint TMD research with the U.S.) is akin to paying for a bouncer,” said the missile expert, adding that Japan can in fact make little technical contribution to the joint research.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.