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The Cabinet earlier this week approved a bill that would provide a legal framework for a missile defense (MD) system. During the current regular session of the Diet, the government is seeking approval of the proposed amendment to the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) Law plus a bill for creating an integrated MD unit.

In December 2003, the government decided to introduce the antimissile system to deal effectively with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. Deployment of the system — a salient feature of the new Defense Program Outline — is planned for fiscal 2006.

A missile fired by North Korea would reach Japan in just 10 minutes. Since there would be too little time for the Japanese Security Council or the Cabinet to meet and decide what to do, it is necessary, the argument goes, to have an effective missile-interception system in place and to establish ad hoc operating procedures for such an emergency.

There is concern, however, that omitting the usual intragovernment procedures could weaken civilian control of the military. The government should do its utmost to ensure that this does not happen. The necessary measures should be explained by either Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi or Defense Agency Director General Yoshinori Ono, or both.

Under the current SDF law, action to intercept an incoming missile are to begin with the issuance of a defense mobilization order. But issuing such an order is considered impractical because of the time it would take. The revision bill takes into account two cases in which incoming missiles would be intercepted without defense mobilization orders:

In Case 1, a missile attack is deemed imminent amid signs of immediate launch preparations, such as fuel injection. The director general of the Defense Agency informs the prime minister of the nation’s deployment of missile-defense forces, including missile-mounted Aegis destroyers. Following a Cabinet decision, the prime minister gives the director general the authority to intercept the missile. After a missile is actually fired, the military commander in charge, acting on orders from the defense chief, gives the go-ahead for interception.

In Case 2, a hostile missile is fired with no prior signs of launch preparations. In such an emergency, the missile can be intercepted without the approval of the prime minister — that is, without a Cabinet decision. Orders by the Defense Agency director general would have been given in advance under the “guidelines for emergency response.”

In both cases, the actual decision to fire an interceptor missile would be made by the field commander. In Case 2, where the prime minister’s decision is skipped, the question is whether the principle of civilian control will be maintained.

The government is trying to ensure both a rapid response to an emergency and civilian control by establishing detailed emergency guidelines, including procedures for radar detection as well as missile destruction, rules describing the MD unit’s execution of the director general’s orders, the scope of the MD unit’s activities, and methods of communicating with concerned administrative bodies.

These guidelines, which have yet to be prepared, should be laid out in the SDF Law as much as possible, not in Cabinet orders that would give the Defense Agency discretionary authority. Additionally, orders issued by the director general to the field commander under the guidelines should be subject to ex post facto review.

The MD system is designed to operate in two stages. In the first stage, an interceptor missile is launched by an Aegis ship to destroy an incoming missile in outer space several minutes after launch. In the second stage, if the interceptor fails, a ground-based Patriot missile is launched to destroy the hostile missile in the atmosphere.

Both the Aegis destroyer and the Patriot missile unit are led by officers equivalent in rank to commander and lieutenant colonel, respectively. Although these officers are well trained, the weight of their responsibility for judging whether to fire an interceptor must be recognized. The revision bill, reflecting the view of the New Komeito party, the partner in the ruling coalition, would require the government to submit a report to the Diet immediately after interception. This is a necessary step to ensure civilian control.

Incidentally, the U.S. Defense Department’s recent flight test of a ground-based interceptor missile failed. The Japanese government says the U.S. antimissile system is different from the short-range interceptor system Japan plans to introduce. Yet the Japanese system is also extraordinarily expensive. It is essential, therefore, to constantly examine its costs and benefits.

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