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Self-Defense Forces commanders in the field must have the authority to launch interceptor missiles in the event of a ballistic missile attack because they would not have enough time to gain approval via the civilian channels now mandated by law, Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono said Friday.

Such authorization, an emergency measure included in a bill aimed at enabling prompt activation of the planned missile defense shield, is expected to cause heated discussions in the Diet over how to ensure civilian control of the armed forces.

The agency plans to submit the bill to the Diet in early February.

The measure might be contentious because it may allow SDF commanders in the field greater latitude in decision-making, which could raise concerns that Japan is deviating from its strict defense-only security policy under the pacifist Constitution.

“What we are discussing is the question of making it clear that frontline commanders have the authority” to launch interceptors, Ono told reporters. “Even a telephone call (to the prime minister) takes time.”

Current law stipulates that in most cases SDF units can only be activated after the prime minister consults with Japan’s Security Council and then gets Diet approval.

According to Ono, the agency is preparing procedures to deal with two scenarios.

If the agency detects advance signs of a missile attack — such as a satellite photo showing a missile being readied for launch — the agency chief will seek approval from the prime minister based on a manual to mobilize the SDF missile defense unit.

However, if a missile is detected approaching Japan without warning, “getting approval (from the prime minister) is impossible,” Ono said.

“If North Korea launches a missile at Japan, we will only have 10 to 15 minutes to shoot it down.”

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