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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet will formally approve on Friday the strengthening of Japan’s defenses through the construction of two new Aegis-equipped destroyers and an extension to the range of surface-to-ship missiles, in order to potentially strike from beyond the range of an enemy.

But addressing controversy over the larger question of whether Japan should acquire the ability to strike enemy bases has been put off, due to concerns from ruling coalition partner Komeito and questions about the legality of such capabilities under the Constitution.

Last week, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi announced that the government would build the two new destroyers with Aegis missile interceptors. They will serve as a replacement for two Aegis Ashore systems Japan was forced to cancel earlier this year due in part to local opposition in Yamaguchi and Akita prefectures, where it was planned for them to be deployed, amid fears booster rockets released after a missile launch could fall on a populated area.

Unlike Aegis Ashore, the two new ships will not have the ability to guard against missile attacks 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Cost issues could also be a concern.

The government estimates that introducing the two ships will require between ¥480 billion and ¥500 billion — between 20% and 30% higher than the estimated costs of Aegis Ashore.

“It’s an expensive option. You get some added flexibility (with ships instead of Aegis Ashore) but a high cost,” says James Schoff, a former senior Pentagon East Asia specialist now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The procurement cost for the two vessels will be a little bit more than the Aegis Ashore option, he added. But that doesn’t factor in possible overruns that could impact the plan, including the costs of putting the SPY-7 radar system on ships and possibly having to modify it for interoperability with the U.S. Navy, which uses SPY-6.

The SPY-7 radar system is the latest radar technology developed by America’s Lockheed Martin. It provides ballistic missile defense on ships and Aegis Ashore platforms, and can detect multiple missile threats. In addition to Japan, Spain and Canada will also be using the technology.

Schoff added that the estimated costs don’t include the budgets for operating and maintaining the ships, which are much higher than those for a ground-based Aegis Ashore installation.

Once the two vessels are launched, it will bring the number of Aegis-equipped vessels in Japan’s fleet to 10. Only the United States has more.

The Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture are about 400 kilometers away from Okinawa's main island. | KYODO
The Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture are about 400 kilometers away from Okinawa’s main island. | KYODO

The Defense Ministry has said the two ships will be equipped with interceptor missiles designed to counter attacks by cruise missiles and enemy fighters, as well as ballistic missiles. The new ships are expected to add to the nation’s defense response in areas such as the East and South China seas, where Beijing has become increasingly assertive.

The ministry expects construction to take five years, although no timetable for starting or completion has been set.

A separate plan also expected to be approved Friday calls for an extension to the range of Type 12 surface-to-ship missiles.

“The range of the current Type 12 is less than 200 kilometers,” says Tetsuo Kotani, professor of global studies at Meikai University and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “After the upgrade, the coverage will be almost doubled, perhaps 300 to 400 km, which covers the Senkakus. This is a surface-to-ship missile, so they will be deployed along the southwestern islands such as Amami, Okinawa, Miyako and Ishigaki.”

Other longer-range standoff missiles under development will have a range of up to 900 km and will be launched from F-35 and F-15 fighter jets. While these missiles could, in theory, be part of new counter-strike capabilities, there are logistical and political hurdles to doing so, Kotani says.

“North Korean missile launchers are road mobile. So the introduction of those (new Japanese) missiles alone does not provide counter-strike capability,” he explains. “These standoff missiles could target fixed targets — Chinese air bases. But that requires a huge political decision, as China will be offended. I don’t believe the Liberal Democratic Party is ready to make such a decision.”

Other problems include the fact that a few more long-range standoff missiles might not mean much, given the number of China’s missiles and the diversity of its air bases. Modernizing the F-15 to handle the new standoff missiles will also be more expensive than originally estimated, as will the missiles themselves.

Meanwhile, Komeito remains wary of new missiles that could lead to a strike capability, or the ability to attack targets from outside the range of enemy missiles, because this raises concerns about whether they are offensive weapons, in violation of the Constitution.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato stated last week that the new missiles were not being developed in order for Japan to acquire a strike capability, only to allow a defensive response from a safe distance.

How this would work in practice, once the new missiles have been produced, seems to be a policy question for a later date. Schoff says that while Japan is working to acquire a limited counter-strike capability, it’s still a few years away from reality anyway. So there is time for the government to decide how to deploy and configure such a capacity.

“I see Japan eventually adopting a comprehensive missile defense approach that is heavy on defense with a little bit of high-end/efficient offense,” Schoff says. “Both will likely be done in close coordination with the U.S., because it will produce a mutually beneficial effect.”

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi attends an online meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers Thursday. | POOL / VIA KYODO
Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi attends an online meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers Thursday. | POOL / VIA KYODO

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