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Last month’s announcement that Japan was canceling plans to deploy the Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense system, due to its high costs and local opposition, set off a domestic political debate about future defense needs. This includes the issue of strike capabilities on an enemy base. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is discussing the matter and is expected to put forward its conclusions later this month. Here is a look at the debate and the issues it raises.

What is the LDP currently discussing?

A group within the party met on June 30 to provide recommendations on a new defense strategy that would include allowing the Self-Defense Forces to attack an enemy base that had launched an attack against Japan. The group includes a number of former defense ministers.

With Aegis Ashore scrapped, alternative ways to defend against missile attacks, especially from North Korea, were discussed at the meeting. This included increasing the number of surface ships with Aegis missile systems. Ship-to-air missile launches would reduce the risk of booster rockets from the missiles falling onto populated areas on land, which was a major concern of local residents opposed to the Aegis Ashore system.

But improving strike capabilities means more ships and planes to conduct ship-to-surface attacks or air-to-surface attacks on an enemy base, using mainly cruise missiles. There was also discussion about constructing, for general defense purposes, a mega-float at sea and locating an Aegis system there. How many mega-floats might be built, and where in Japan’s territorial waters they might be located, was not discussed.

As discussions go forward, there is also the question of whether any proposed mega-float facility for an Aegis or other missile system could also be used for attacks beyond self-defense purposes.

Would destroying a base before it was clear other missiles had been launched violate the Constitution?

The government’s position is that possession of a strike capability would be maintained under the principle of self-defense and thus legal under the Constitution, which recognizes such a right, as well as under international law. Article 51 of the United Nations charter gives member states the right to individual and collective self-defense in the event of an armed attack, until the U.N. Security Council has acted.

In terms of what exactly constitutes self-defense in this case, some in the LDP argue that if it’s judged there is no other way to stop an attack except to strike at an enemy base, this falls within the realm of the right to self-defense.

But the key questions are how to make a quick, accurate judgment as to whether a hostile, armed attack is underway, and how to avoid the mistake of a pre-emptive attack that not only violates Japanese and international law, but also sparks a larger conflict. On these issues, the LDP has yet to reach a consensus.

What are some other problems Japan faces in expanding its strike capability?

Cost, public and political opposition, and how an expansion would affect Japan’s military relationship with the United States.

The government has not yet made an official decision or announcement on the matter, but some government sources and experts say that destroying missile launchers with increased strike force capacity would ultimately be cheaper than an Aegis Ashore system.

In order to ensure any counterstrike launched against an armed attack is justifiable self-defense, Japan would need to increase its satellite surveillance and airborne surveillance capabilities, and strengthen its ability to intercept communications from hostile forces.

Surveillance of underground missile facilities, trucks transporting missiles to launching pads and spotting where mobile missile launching pads are located will also be required. To do all of this will first require large increases in defense budgets at a time when there is great political pressure to address domestic financial needs. In particular, these include social welfare programs for the rapidly aging population and, more immediately, dealing with economic damage from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, should the suggestion of mega-floats, regardless of whether they have Aegis or other missile defense systems, be adopted, finding a location within Japan’s territorial waters could be problematic. Too close to land could invite protests from local residents and fishers’ unions worried the float will affect local fishing grounds. Too far out to sea raises questions about the costs to maintain them. Either way, this option will stir debate about whether they are truly a cost-effective method of increasing strike force capacity.

At the moment, many members of LDP coalition partner Komeito are also strongly opposed to the idea of increased strike force capacity, which could further slow LDP efforts to strengthen such capability quickly.

Finally, there is the question of how the United States would react to Japan independently strengthening its strike force capabilities. Traditionally, the U.S. has frowned upon Japan acquiring increased strike capability, worried that doing so could drag the U.S. into a conflict it is not prepared for. The U.S. is also concerned about how another military alliance partner in the region, South Korea, would react to Japan intending to gain first-strike capability.

For Japan, on the other hand, there are also questions about how its diplomatic and economic relations with China and Russia would be impacted if it went after first-strike capability.

What happens next?

The LDP panel continues to study the issue. Last week, media reports suggested some in the party want to change the name of the strategy to something less threatening to placate those, especially in Komeito, who worry that what the LDP is advocating will violate the Constitution and raise the temperature in an already tense region.

But arguments over semantics aside, whether the final recommendations the panel makes can overcome deeper domestic political concerns in other areas, especially cost concerns, means that obtaining an ability to strike independently will continue to face high hurdles.

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