There has been much talk lately in Japan about beefing up its missile defense system as North Korea, after conducting five nuclear weapons tests, keeps up its ballistic missile program, including firing four missiles simultaneously into the Sea of Japan in March. Yet given that the missile defense system was introduced in the first place as a deterrent against North Korea, it is doubtful whether the system will be effective now that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs appear to have made such great strides and the rogue behavior of Kim Jong Un seems as unchecked as ever.

There is no such thing as a foolproof system to strike down incoming missiles. Attempts to pursue that by beefing up the missile defense system will push up defense spending endlessly. The only alternative may be to make the Self-Defense Forces capable of carrying out pre-emptive attacks on North Korean missile bases. But the government is hesitant to take such action, and relies on the offensive capability of the U.S. military. The increased tensions between Washington and Pyongyang since President Donald Trump took office in the United States sheds light on inherent shortcomings of the missile defense system.

Japan’s system to combat missile attacks is made up of two stages. In the first stage, naval vessels equipped with the Aegis system cover the entire country, armed with the RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 (SM-3), which is designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles in outer space. If that fails, the ground-to-air MIM-104 Patriot (PAC-3) is designed to shoot down the missiles at an altitude of 15 to 20 km.

That may sound plausible, but only four Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels have the Aegis system. Since each of them can possibly shoot down only a handful of missiles at a time, the fleet would hardly be enough to defend the whole country if North Korea randomly fires large numbers of missiles. Although the PAC-3s are deployed in more than 10 locations around Japan, their range of about 20 km means they cover only tiny portions of the country.

The government is considering adding one more layer by installing the Aegis Ashore system, which would deploy SM-3 missiles on the ground, or by adopting the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

But no missile defense can ever be completely effective. Should North Korea fire a number of multi-warhead missiles simultaneously and should even one of them dodge the defense system and hit Japan, the resulting damage would be catastrophic. North Korea has also begun to use mobile missile launchers, making it more difficult to detect signs of imminent firings. Complicating matters is the Trump administration’s seeming willingness not to rule out pre-emptive strikes against North Korea.

On Feb. 28, Shotaro Yachi, the national security adviser and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top diplomacy brain, told his U.S. counterpart, H.R. McMaster, in Washington that a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula would have the devastating effect of Japan becoming a part of the battlefield and that it is important for Tokyo and Washington to share information on “all options” being contemplated. In effect, Yachi was asking the U.S. to exercise restraint because an American pre-emptive attack on the North could trigger retaliatory missile attacks on Japan.

Around the same time, other high-ranking diplomats, including Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae and Deputy Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba, requested that Japan be given prior consultation in the event of U.S. military action. It’s clear that such requests represent the intentions of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Such uneasiness on the part of Japan is not unwarranted because the recent joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise near the Korean Peninsula was the largest in history, and involved crack U.S. special forces like the Naval Special Warfare Command that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. As they watch the movements of the Trump administration, government officials in Tokyo appear to be worried that the U.S. may be contemplating a blitz on North Korea to remove its dictator, and that should Kim manage to escape he would launch massive counterattacks against both Japan and South Korea.

These worries are fueled by the concern that Trump may decide to attack the North before Kim’s regime obtains the capability to fire long-range ballistic missiles that could hit the U.S. mainland. It is not at all certain, a government source says, that the U.S. would indeed give Japan advance notice on initiating an operation to destroy Kim’s regime, because defense officials in Washington are frustrated by the way confidential information keeps leaking from the Defense Ministry and the SDF.

The Trump administration is keeping a pre-emptive attack on North Korea as an option to prevent the worst-case scenario for the U.S. of Pyongyang acquiring the capability to fire nuclear missiles at New York and Washington — not primarily to defend Japan. Even if the U.S. were to succeed in smashing the Kim regime, just one North Korean nuclear missile hitting Japan would be catastrophic for the country, confides a Foreign Ministry source.

Such concerns are a sign that the government has just begun to face up to the reality that there’s little it can do to prevent a disaster should North Korea fire multiple ballistic missiles at the country. Beefing up the nation’s missile defense will inflate security expenses to the trillions of yen. It would be much less costly, says a government insider, to equip the SDF with capabilities for pre-emptive strikes on enemy bases.

A ranking SDF officer says that by combining the forces of upgraded fighters, aerial refueling aircraft and reconnaissance planes, Japan would be capable of attacking North Korean bases before ballistic missiles are fired. Such an idea is being debated within Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, but the government remains hesitant, at least officially.

The government holds the official position stated in 1956 that Japan can make pre-emptive strikes when it is confronted with the imminent danger of enemy attack. Still, it has remained cautious toward acquiring such capabilities — and not just because it feared public criticism. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were primarily meant as diplomatic leverage to demand regime guarantees from the U.S., but Japan acquiring a pre-emptive strike capability may prompt Pyongyang to view Japan more as its target.

The basic structure of the Japan-U.S. alliance — the American forces playing the offensive role and the SDF the defensive role — is bound to change. Japan acquiring pre-emptive strike capability might sound like a good idea for the U.S., which calls on its allies to pay more for their own defense. But that could infuriate China and South Korea, and it’s not clear if the U.S. would wholeheartedly welcome such a move in view of Washington’s relations with Beijing and its alliance with Seoul.

Japan seems caught in a dilemma between the limitations of missile defense and possessing a pre-emptive capability to strike enemy bases.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the April issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. More English-language articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com .

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