It is still vivid in memory that U.S. President Donald Trump, acting like a weapons salesman, mounted an offensive on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to sell the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter and a missile defense system by taking advantage of threats from North Korea. These weapons will be sold to Japan under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program, under which Washington has all the right to determine the prices and delivery dates — an unequal scheme favorable to the United States that Japan must swallow.
Abe must have been fully aware that Washington is acting on behalf of the American munitions industry under the pretext of helping strengthen the defense capability of Japan, a major U.S. ally. Yet he nestled up to the U.S. leader’s sales pitch because taking countermeasures to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs is the best way to strengthen his administration’s position at home.
The draft budget for fiscal 2018 starting in April calls for a 1.3 percent increase in defense spending from the original budget for fiscal 2017 to a record ¥5.191 trillion, the fourth straight year of breaking the previous high. Conspicuous in the spending is strengthening of the missile defense system, such as deployment of the land-based Aegis missile defense system known as Aegis Ashore.
The government’s emphasis on missile defense seems to be following the proverb that says, “Provide for the worst; the best will save itself.” Excessive spending on missile defense could be detrimental to other defense programs, leading to a weakening of the nation’s overall defense capabilities.
A Defense Ministry insider said: “Although an increase in the defense budget is welcome, I cannot help feeling that the government is aiming to shore up short-term popularity with the public. Where will lopsided spending on countering the North’s ballistic missiles lead the nation’s defense?”
Japan’s missile defense is made up of two stages. In the first stage, radar of the Air Self-Defense Force detects an incoming ballistic missile and an Aegis-equipped vessel of the Maritime Self-Defense Force fires an interceptor missile to shoot down the invading missile in outer space. Should the interception in the first stage fail, the ASDF’s Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air missile system will shoot down the incoming missile at a lower altitude. This is the second stage.
Two Aegis-equipped ships operating in the Sea of Japan are said to be capable of covering all of Japan’s territories with their interceptor missile systems. A high-ranking MSDF officer says that since these ships are ordered to be prepared to take intercepting actions around the clock, excessive burdens are being placed on them. With two units of the Aegis Ashore deployed on the ground, he says, the missile defense system will be strengthened and the MSDF ships will be able to operate more flexibly.
But there is no guarantee that North Korean missiles will be shot down without fail by interceptor missiles of an Aegis-equipped vessel or by the PAC-3. Rather, the chances of failure would be greater than those of success. For example, if North Korea fires a missile into a lofted orbit reaching an altitude in excess of 1,000 km, a Japanese anti-ballistic missile from an Aegis-equipped ship would not be able to reach its target until the North Korean missile nears the apex of the orbit, when it will become easier to hit because its speed will be reduced. When the North Korean missile starts falling at a sharp angle, its speed is thought to reach 7 km per second, which is beyond the PAC-3’s ability to intercept it.
The PAC-3 is deployed at 16 locations in Japan. But the PAC-3 is said to be capable of intercepting an enemy missile within a radius of less than 20 km. This means that more than 99 percent of Japan’s land area is not covered with ground-based interceptor missiles. Failure to shoot down just one North Korean missile with a nuclear warhead would have devastating consequences beyond imagination.
Yet the government has been strengthening the missile defense system as a means of deterring North Korea’s missile attacks by showing that the missiles could be neutralized. According to a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, the chances of Pyongyang making a surprise attack on Japan are extremely small because such an attack would mean a collapse of the North’s regime. What is feared is the North firing missiles toward Japan in desperation with a false belief that an attack from the U.S. is imminent, a Defense Ministry source said.
Missile defense is an insurance policy against a highly unlikely event. Its aim is deterring North Korea from firing missiles toward Japan. But that insurance is not foolproof and is defective. Just as paying large insurance premiums would adversely affect any household budget, the ever increasing cost of installing and maintaining the missile defense system would affect expenditures for social security and other fields, eliminating any hope of reducing the sovereign debt which has already exceeded ¥1 quadrillion.
Even so, provocative actions by North Korea are working to the advantage of the Abe administration. Taro Aso, deputy prime minister and finance minister, expressed his honest gut feeling when he said that the North Korean issue helped the ruling Liberal Democratic Party win a resounding victory in the general election last October.
The Abe administration takes advantage of North Korean provocations to instigate fears about the threats from the North in the public. Then the internet comes to be filled with opinion that the Kake and Moritomo school operator scandals surrounding the administration are trivial issues. This way, the administration manages to prevent its rate of approval from falling fast. With a simplistic catch phrase of “We will defend Japan at any cost,” the administration is pushing ahead with increasing the defense budget, especially for expanding the missile defense system. A former defense minister has gone so far as to say that the biggest and most powerful supporter of Abe as prime minister is Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s supreme leader.
This year, the Abe administration will review the outline for defense planning and work out a new one to be implemented from fiscal 2019. Instead of the Defense Ministry, the National Security Secretariat within the National Security Council will do the work. The NSS is directly under the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry is taking the initiative in the NSS. It is thought that the sources of recent news reports on such matters as installation of the Aegis Ashore system, conversion to an aircraft carrier of the MSDF’s helicopter destroyer Izumo and introduction of cruise missiles for fighters capable of attacking enemy military bases are people close to the NSS. A Defense Ministry insider said that recently, sources close to the NSS or the Prime Minister’s Office may be intentionally leaking information on defense-related matters.
Against the background of Abe being in a politically dominant position, the NSS has come to play a leading role in developing a basic plan for improvement of the nation’s defense capabilities. A former high-ranking official of the Defense Ministry has expressed concern by saying: “There is a strong possibility that consideration will be given only to defense equipment that is appealing to the public. Should huge sums of money continue to be poured into the missile defense system, which carries a strong character of insurance, the balance in the entire national defense policy will be destroyed.” The warning that the frenzy over missile defense could lead to the collapse of the nation cannot be dismissed as mere fiction.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. More English articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com .
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