National / Politics | FYI

Defense Ministry blunders and local opposition ruin Japan's Aegis Ashore plans

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

On June 15, Defense Minister Taro Kono made a surprise announcement that Japan would suspend the deployment of the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore missile interception system, citing huge costs as well as local opposition.

But the controversial Aegis Ashore program had long been troubled by doubts about whether it was even needed and bungling by the Defense Ministry. Here’s a look at what led to the cancellation, and what it might mean.

How did Japan end up with Aegis Ashore in the first place?

In December 2017, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet announced that it had approved the purchase of two of the land-based missile defense batteries.

The decision came about a month after a visit to Japan by U.S. President Donald Trump, in which he told a joint news conference that Japan was going to purchase massive amounts of U.S.-made military equipment, including many different kinds of missiles. Japanese and U.S. officials cited Aegis Ashore as an effective way to counter the threat from North Korea’s missile launches.

But Japan’s interest in acquiring Aegis Ashore, which combines radar built by Lockheed Martin and missiles co-developed by Raytheon Co. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, dates back to at least 2014. In its National Defense Program Guidelines and the Medium-Term Defense Program for fiscal 2014 to 2018, the ministry announced it planned to spend ¥80 billion per site to buy the two batteries as part of a larger package of defense-related purchases.

Where were the two interceptor batteries to be built and why?

Just three months before the December 2017 Cabinet decision, the Defense Ministry was still not saying where the two batteries would be located. Media reports, quoting unnamed ministry sources, suggested the town of Oga, Akita Prefecture, Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, or possibly Tsushima, an island within sight of Busan, South Korea.

When it was later learned the ministry was looking at the Ground-Self Defense Force’s Araya training area in the city of Akita and its Mutsumi training area in the town of Abu, about a 30-minute drive from Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, as candidate sites, there was strong opposition in both places.

By autumn 2018, half of Abu’s 1,450 residents, including the mayor, were opposed to the plan. They cited concerns about either becoming the target of a counterattack aimed at the Aegis Ashore facility or being hit by falling booster rockets from the missiles launched by it. In Akita, opposition came not only from residents near the Araya base, but also from local Liberal Democratic Party officials who were angry that they had not been consulted in advance.

Kenta Suzuki, an LDP member in the Akita Prefectural Assembly and GSDF veteran, told The Japan Times in December 2018 that he first learned Araya was a candidate site in November 2017 from media reports — not from the ministry or senior LDP officials in Tokyo.

Unlike the Mutsumi training area in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which is not near a major urban area, Araya sits just 5 km from Akita Station. Suzuki told his LDP colleagues in Tokyo that, as there were nearly 13,000 people living in the area surrounding Araya, it was a bad choice.

Local officials and citizens in Yamaguchi and Akita also said they never received clear answers from the Defense Ministry as to how and why those two locations were decided upon, or why other potential sites were disregarded.

This fed local speculation that the real reason for the choices might be not to defend Japan, but to ensure the batteries will be strategically located to shoot down North Korean missiles passing over Japan and aimed at U.S. forces in either Hawaii or Guam.

What happened last year?

The Defense Ministry submitted a report to the Akita Prefectural Government on the suitability of the Araya site. But it quickly found itself embarrassed when it was discovered to contain a number of errors.

The original report claimed that Araya, which sits very close to the Sea of Japan, was free from tsunami risk, but this was found to not be the case. Before Aegis Ashore could be deployed, the ministry said, anti-tsunami measures would have to be taken. This would drive up the cost, which had already risen from the original ¥80 billion to ¥100 billion per battery.

It also claimed, using incorrect data, that nearby mountains in other possible sites were too high and would block Aegis Ashore’s radar.

What reaction has there been to the cancellation and what could the domestic political effect be?

Abe has apologized, and Kono visited Yamaguchi on Friday and Akita on Sunday to explain the decision. At Friday’s meeting, Kono also offered his apologies to Yamaguchi Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka for the ministry’s carelessness.

Defense Minister Taro Kono wears a protective face mask while attending a Ground Self-Defense Force live-fire exercise at the East Fuji Maneuver Area in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, on May 23. | POOL / VIA BLOOMBERG
Defense Minister Taro Kono wears a protective face mask while attending a Ground Self-Defense Force live-fire exercise at the East Fuji Maneuver Area in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, on May 23. | POOL / VIA BLOOMBERG

Senior LDP officials acknowledge that the Abe government screwed up and failed to properly build interparty consensus before announcing plans to deploy Aegis Ashore.

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, normally a staunch ally of Abe, said there had been no discussion with party officials first. Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera blamed the cancellation on the Defense Ministry’s poor communication with residents, saying that it invited distrust in both Yamaguchi and Akita.

In Okinawa, the cancellation of Aegis Ashore has led to questions about the Defense Ministry’s reasoning, including from Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki. If Tokyo is willing to cancel Aegis Ashore due to cost and safety concerns, why is proceeding with construction of the U.S. replacement base in Henoko, where the same concerns exist?

Many U.S. and Japanese policy experts are attempting to play down the cancellation by noting that there are many other aspects where Japan and the U.S. can cooperate on defense projects. But the Aegis Ashore cancellation means future attempts by the Defense Ministry to impose similarly large projects on communities without first undergoing a long, thorough and convincing explanation as to why they are needed could prove far more difficult in practice than predicted.

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