National

Japan mulled buying cruise missiles for pre-emptive self-defense: Ishiba

by Nao Shimoyachi

The government considered arming itself with Tomahawk cruise missiles to pre-empt ballistic missile attacks but gave up because it would contradict the postwar policy of not maintaining an offensive capability, former Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba said Monday.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Ishiba said the government has noted the “effectiveness” of Tomahawk missiles and discussed the possibility of acquiring them, based on the assumption that such weapons “may remain within the confines of the minimum necessary force for self-defense.”

“The accuracy (of a Tomahawk missile) has improved a lot, and we could minimize the damage,” Ishiba said. “Among the three conditions for exercising the right to self-defense is to limit (the use of force) to the minimum needed for self-defense.”

According to Ishiba, the Cabinet Secretariat debated whether Tomahawk missiles could be considered a part of the minimum defense capability allowed under the Constitution.

While Ishiba did not specify when the debate was held, he said the option was being considered at about the same time the government was considering introducing a missile defense system.

Japan decided to adopt a missile defense system in 2003. Ishiba was Defense Agency chief for two years until September 2004.

Eventually, the government reached the conclusion that “it cannot change the policy of relying on the United States for striking power,” he said.

Under the war-renouncing Constitution, Japan has pledged not to possess offensive capabilities and to rely on the U.S. for such power.

However, the government, in a position spelled out in the 1950s, says the Constitution allows it to attack an enemy base in self-defense if there is no other means to protect the nation from an emergency, such as a “guided bomb attack.”

Whether the Tomahawk — which has been used by the U.S. and its allies on targets in Iraq and Afghanistan — can possibly be categorized as a purely defensive weapon remains unclear.

In March 2003, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that Ishiba, then Defense Agency chief, ordered his staff to consider the possibility of purchasing cruise missiles from the U.S. The report came at a time when the Diet was discussing how Japan should defend itself against a ballistic missile attack from North Korea.

Ishiba denied the report at the time, and in Monday’s interview, he repeated that the discussions were held by the Cabinet Secretariat, not by the Defense Agency.

Ishiba said he personally believes Japan should not possess Tomahawks because the nature of cruise missiles is not widely understood among the Japanese public.

“In the end, the missile defense (system that Japan began introducing last year) suits Japan’s strict defense policy,” he said.

However, Ishiba argued that Japan must possess a “minimum necessary ability to attack an enemy base” to defend itself from a ballistic missile attack, on the condition that such an ability be used strictly in self-defense.

He added that the government must come up with conditions to ensure that such a capability will not be used for aggression.

On Thursday, Ishiba will publish his new book, “National Defense,” in which he reflects on his experience as head of the Defense Agency and his personal views on defense policy.

In the book, he writes that arming Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers with Tomahawk missiles could have been a less expensive and more effective alternative to the missile defense system just adopted, but says he was opposed to the option and that the Defense Agency never considered such a plan.