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Preoccupation with the Iraq issue, the Diet election and a lack of consensus within the Defense Agency are delaying the process for formal government approval of the missile defense system.

In late August, the agency said it would seek 142.3 billion yen for a missile defense system in its fiscal 2004 budget request. Agency officials promised, however, that a series of National Security Council meetings would be held before the request is formally adopted.

But there is no indication that these meetings will be held anytime soon, and the yearend deadline for the government to finalize the draft budget for the next fiscal year is fast approaching.

Government and defense officials have been preoccupied in recent months with a pending dispatch of Self-Defense Forces troops to Iraq and Sunday’s general election.

“Time is pressing,” a senior Defense Agency official said. “To squeeze out the cost for missile defense from the 5 trillion yen defense budget means we have to decide on a major course for national security policy.”

But agency officials are unable to agree on what that course might be, he said.

The official said there is a consensus that Japan should still be able to repel an invasion, but there is no agreement as what defense capabilities should be maintained to this end.

The agency also cannot agree on how to deal with new threats, including terrorism and biological warfare, he said.

The latest annual defense white paper, issued in August, identifies three key elements: finding ways to protect Japan from new threats such as terrorism and missile attacks, contributing to international peace and stability by participating in peacekeeping operations, and maintaining some level of defense against a conventional invasion.

Finding a way to balance these needs amid the tight fiscal circumstances should be the topic of discussions toward forging the next basic defense program, which is expected to be compiled by the end of this year but has apparently been delayed.

The current basic defense program was formed in late 1995. The need for a new one became apparent after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Defense officials said the attacks “changed the defense conditions assumed in the current basic program.”

As the deadline for the yearend budget decision draws near, the Finance Ministry has told the Defense Agency to decide where spending cuts can be made if it wants the funding for the missile defense OK’d.

“We must present a future defense posture to get the budget request approved (for the missile defense) because the plan requires a lot of money over the long term,” a ranking agency official said.

Asked if the Defense Agency can come up with a coherent policy on the future of national defense by the time an NSC meeting is held by the end of the year, another official said, “We are going to have to get things done in time anyway.”

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