Defense Minister Taro Kono has announced suspending the planned deployment of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system. Kono blamed cost and technical issues for the decision, neither of which will be going away.
That gives credence to reports that suspension is soon to become cancellation, which will force a rethink of Japanese (and U.S.) plans to defend the country (and forward deployed U.S. assets) against rapidly improving missile threats. Japan should use this as a moment of opportunity for fresh and clear-eyed thinking about the nation’s defense needs; done properly, this could improve cooperation with the United States rather than damage it.
The missile threat to Japan is real. The Defense Ministry’s 2019 white paper warned that North Korea has hundreds of ballistic missiles capable of hitting every part of Japan. That arsenal, in combination with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, poses “a grave and imminent threat to the security of Japan.” China has an even larger number and variety of missiles that menace Japan and are integral to the success of its “anti-access/area denial strategy” which Beijing hopes will allow the People’s Liberation Army to prevail in an armed conflict.
Japan has two ways to defend against that threat. Seven destroyers (and an eighth being built) are equipped with the Aegis missile defense system that can shoot down missiles in the post-boost phase of their flight. If they miss, one of the Patriot batteries scattered across the country can take them out in the re-entry phase as they approach nearby targets.
Aegis Ashore was intended to provide a third, intermediary layer of defense. Two sites, one in Akita Prefecture in northeastern Japan and the other in Yamaguchi Prefecture in the west, would deploy a new, more powerful radar to detect and defend the entire country against incoming missiles.
The system was expected to be operational in 2025 and was originally estimated to cost ¥80 billion ($745 million) per site, for a total cost of about $1.5 billion. That figure was quickly abandoned; in 2018, the year after the Cabinet approved deployment, the price inflated to ¥100 billion per facility. Eventually, the total cost of the system, which included procurement, operating and maintenance costs, first estimated to be $2.15 billion, nearly doubled to $4 billion (¥450 billion) over its 30-year operating period.
Rapidly expanding costs were just one of the program’s problems. Local opposition was very strong. The perennial “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) problem was exacerbated by concerns that the new radar would be a health hazard for residents living near the new facility. Engineers could not ensure that the booster rockets of interceptors fired at incoming missiles would fall on the designated landing area, threatening inhabitants with the prospect of a 200-kg piece of metal hurtling down at them from an altitude of 2 or 3 km — a problem that could not be fixed without massive time and additional costs.
Those problems were compounded by other self-inflicted wounds. A Defense Ministry study that examined potential sites in Akita Prefecture and made other locations look less suitable had errors — exaggerating the size of some mountains. The claim that there was no need for anti-tsunami measures to protect the deployment, even though the site was near water, was especially galling since Japan knows well the need for such protections in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. And to further inflame local passions, a defense official fell asleep during a meeting with city residents, forcing the ministry to issue apologies.
Suspension could fuel misperceptions about Japan’s commitment to the alliance. Governments in Pyongyang and Beijing might reason that Tokyo is unwilling to defend itself, a mistaken and dangerous assumption. More worrying though is the prospect that the decision will encourage other Japanese communities to resist needed defense facilities. Okinawans will likely double down (if that is possible) on resistance to building a relocation facility to the U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma; Aegis Ashore could crystallize into another Futenma relocation dispute.
The threat persists, however. The country still has Aegis-equipped destroyers, but they are overstretched and the increasing number of North Korean missile tests and other provocations means their burden will intensify, depriving Japan of assets needed to safeguard the southwestern maritime approaches. While Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both backed Kono’s decision, the prevailing view within the Japanese national security community is, as Kono claimed in January, “to have a capability to protect all Japan, we need to have at least two Aegis Ashore.”
Aegis Ashore is a strategic concern for another reason: It is a tangible expression of Japan-U.S. security cooperation. Abe agreed to the deployment after meeting U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017 and the purchase of more U.S. weapons systems has been a priority of the Trump administration. With host nation support talks scheduled for later this year, suspension of the deployment will make those negotiations, certain to be difficult, even more contentious.
Kono is trying to eliminate waste in Japanese weapons systems, and therefore can’t ignore the ballooning price tag. The opportunity cost of every yen spent on defense must be closely scrutinized and every possible efficiency realized.
Thus far, that analysis has focused on the trade-off between ground- and maritime-based missile defense systems, but Japan also seeks to spend more on defense domains like outerspace and cyberspace. After expressing dismay at news of the decision, some Japanese officials echoed Tetsuo Kotani, a professor at Meikai University, who suggested that Kono’s decision could lead to a healthier discussion on defense, including comprehensive air and missile defense by the two countries.
Eric Sayers, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, warns that “this is a good reminder that threat perceptions in Japan have not shifted as much as Washington assumes.” He is confident, however, that while “this will be a setback, it’s not one the alliance can’t work through.”
He’s right. This should galvanize bilateral cooperation, promoting still greater integration of the two countries’ defense systems. That unity of purpose could render a missile defense system irrelevant.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”
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