According to press reports, Japan intends to mount an “independent” missile defense so as not to violate a constitutional interpretation that prohibits Japan from engaging in collective self-defense. Thus Japan would refrain from shooting down missiles that pass over Japan but are targeted at “other countries,” meaning the United States. Japan’s political and bureaucratic leaders seem to think that such posturing is necessary to contain political controversy over missile defense. But the notion of “independent” missile defense is pure snake oil.

For Japan, it’s either cooperation with the U.S. in missile defense or nothing. America is light years ahead in missile defense technology. And Japan’s economy hit a brick wall more than a decade ago. Moreover, Japan is entirely dependent on U.S. sensors and infrared satellites (which detect heat plumes when missiles are launched.) Japan’s own optical satellites merely replicate capabilities that can now be purchased commercially at much lower cost. Another boondoggle on the taxpayer.

North Korea, China’s quasi ally, awoke Japan from its long slumber on security issues by launching a Taepodong long-range missile over Japan in 1998. That meant that all of Japan is now subject to attack from North Korea, potentially with nuclear weapons. North Korea’s ruthless behavior in kidnapping and murdering Japanese citizens is also now well known to the Japanese public. That kind of regime in control of weapons of mass destruction is a threat that no government in Tokyo can afford to ignore. And Japan cannot possibly build missile defenses on its own.

Yet according to the recent press reports obviously inspired by Japanese government officials, we are told that a missile fired by North Korea at the U.S. mainland would not pass over Japan, although one fired at Hawaii and Guam would do so. So Japan does not need to engage in collective self defense. Do these officials think the Japanese public cannot read a map? The long curve of the Japanese archipelago means that any North Korean missile fired at the U.S. mainland must pass over Japan.

Moreover, the inhibition on collective self defense is ridiculous. Collective self defense is the right of every member of the United Nations under section 51 of the Charter. Japanese who think strategically know that during the height of the Cold War, the huge Soviet Pacific Fleet submarine force was successfully deterred by approximately 100 Japanese advanced antisubmarine aircraft. These aircraft flew patrols, alternating on a daily basis, with their U.S. Seventh Fleet counterparts (the U.S. contribution being only one fourth of the Japanese totals.)

Soviet commanders certainly did not believe that Japan would refrain from exercising collective self defense. To the contrary, they believed that if the balloon went up, Japan would fight. Thus deterrence worked. But had Japan not been willing to fight alongside the U.S., the Seventh Fleet’s burden would have been far greater, and stability in the entire northwest Pacific would have been much less certain. Times change, but the principles of security are remarkable enduring.

Currently, Japan — in its attempts at political management of the missile defense issue — has apparently decided against buying U.S. radars before its own radars become operational in 2007. If those reports are true, Japan will be leaving a window of vulnerability at the very time that the North Korean regime might be beginning to crack. That could be dangerous. Currently, if a missile is launched, the U.S. and Japan can track it, but they can’t predict accurately where it will land. “Point defense” by PAC-3s won’t be of much use without radars. Moreover, that vulnerability will be understood in Pyongyang.

Deterrence depends on the assumption of rational behavior on the part of others — that they will desist from aggression because they know their own destruction would follow. Thus the Soviet Union was deterred during the Cold War because Soviet leaders knew that nuclear war would destroy their political system. But the logic of deterrence doesn’t work if others are willing to commit suicide, as we saw with the 9/11 hijackers.

We know that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is acutely aware of the fate of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, executed when his military turned against him. Thus if Kim knew he was finished anyway, he might decide to launch a missile in vengeance against the U.S., or at U.S. bases in Japan, in order to take large numbers of his enemies with him. (Hitler developed the original cruise and ballistic missiles at the end of World War II, and called them “vengeance” weapons.) And we can’t be certain that North Korea is incapable of sticking a nuclear warhead on a missile.

That scenario is not terribly likely, but it is not impossible either. Thus the topic of “forward based radars” is likely to generate some pointed U.S.-Japan dialogue in the coming months.

More broadly, most Japanese involved in missile defense know that that the idea of “independent” missile defense is snake oil. It’s time they said so, publicly.

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