Following the abrupt retreat from Aegis Ashore, the Liberal Democratic Party has convened an internal research commission to discuss future defense policy. Headed by former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and composed of other defense-minded politicians like Shigeru Ishiba and Gen Nakatani, the commission will deliberate a range of issues with an aim of publishing its findings sometime this month.

Driving the debate will be the decision on whether or not to acquire strike capabilities. In other words, should Japan adopt policies and acquire equipment that would enable it to execute attacks onto foreign soil?

For Japan, the debate on “strike” centers on whether the country should possess the capability to attack foreign military bases, should assets on those bases prove an imminent danger to Japan. It is by no means a new debate for the government — the Cabinet was clarifying policy related to it as early as 1956. However, we are now at a point where the outcomes of the debate could finally have some meaningful and near-term impacts on Japanese security practice.

There is plenty of room for a theoretical discussion on whether Japan should acquire strike capability, but there also are very real practical issues at play. Those issues are layered and complex, so the simplest way to look at it is from the viewpoint of why the Japanese government is seeking those capabilities in the first place and build from there.

First things first: Japan will not acquire strike capabilities with the intention of using them in anything but a “defense of Japan” scenario. Any ally or prospective security partner hoping that this opens up new potential for coalition warfighting should disabuse themselves of that notion right away.

Rather, for the LDP, the primary driver behind acquiring strike capabilities is to enhance its conventional deterrence; that is, that possession of those capabilities will raise the costs of using military force against Japanese sovereign territory. The catch is, for a deterrent to work, it must be credible. This is where things get tricky for Japan.

The first step is developing the policy. For the LDP, the government has already established a foundational policy that strike capabilities, if used to defend Japan against an imminent attack, are allowable under Article 9 of the Constitution. From there, the devil is in the details. The LDP will have to work through the bureaucracy to modify existing defense policies — namely, the 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-Term Defense Program 2019-2023 — to include acquisition of strike capabilities as a priority.

Because those policy documents are internal to the administration, modifying them will not be as difficult as deciding upon which of Japan’s existing laws grant the authority for exercising strike capabilities. As of now, the Self-Defense Forces lack the legal authority to use military force against another country except under the Armed Attack and Survival Threatening Situation Response Law amended in 2015. The problem with that law is that the political process is cumbersome to the point of making employment of strike capabilities impractical.

To explain: First, the Cabinet must identify an “armed attack situation” or “survival threatening situation” against Japan. In the strictest interpretation of the law, this includes reporting of an “armed attack” (whether against Japan or a close partner nation) to the United Nations. Government officials must then develop a “Basic Plan” for response. Importantly, the Basic Plan must be all encompassing, envisioning all of the requirements necessary for dealing with the conflict.

After that, the Basic Plan must gain Cabinet approval and go to the Diet for deliberation. In emergency situations — e.g., the event that Japan is already under attack — Diet approval may be ex post facto. Taken all together, however, the time when strike operations are most important will have long since passed.

To rectify this, the government will have to modify its laws to open up strike options much earlier in an escalating conflict. That, however, will be a tough sell to the Japanese public — even tougher at a time when the country is dealing with the lingering effects of COVID-19 on daily life and the economy. For the average Japanese, the pandemic is the enemy right now, not North Korea, China, or any other foreign actor.

Assuming the government can work through those policy problems, there are the equipment problems. To get strike capability, Japan will have to acquire more than just some missiles capable of hitting an enemy target. They will have to select a specific weapon system. That weapon system has maintenance and support equipment requirements. New training programs will be necessary, not just for the personnel employing those strike capabilities, but for those doing the targeting and other behind-the-scenes support work.

Then there are supply chain and replenishment issues; after all, a gun without bullets is just a paperweight. Additionally, some systems will have special storage requirements that Japan does not currently have available. The list goes on, and while there are defense contracting companies primed to provide those services to Japan, it all comes at a price.

This leads to the next problem: how does Japan pay for all of this? Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe incrementally increased the defense budget every year since 2012, he will be hard pressed to do so with COVID-19 impacting the economy. Even with leftover money that was earmarked for Aegis Ashore, other programs may have to be cut or scaled back to create budget space for strike capabilities. That renders opportunity costs at a time when Japan is seeking to evolve its security architecture in other areas as well.

Assuming Japan can acquire the equipment, the government will still have to demonstrate its new strike capability. That demonstration is important for two reasons: one, to show potential adversaries that Japan has a capability that works; and two, to train its own personnel so that if they have to use it, they will be able to do so effectively.

The problem here is understanding where Japan plans to train for strike operations. The government just fumbled the deployment of a defensive weapon system to its territory. Now the government wants to base attack capabilities somewhere in Japan that, in theory, should be employed from time-to-time in live-fire exercises.

How does the government think it will be able to handle the local politics associated with deployment of strike capabilities? Based on the current pattern, the government will only have three options: one, offer a lot of money through subsidies to gain local “acceptance”; two, accept strict restrictions on storage and training of strike-related weapon systems; or three (and least likely), completely revamp their approach to compensation politics.

A final consideration is the problem of how regional players will react. Newton’s law has some relevance in international security in that every action tends to have an equal and opposite reaction. The notion that Japan is acquiring strike capabilities is certain to draw the ire of at least one neighbor, if not more. What Japan cannot predict is how those neighbors may react in response, especially in the interim while Japan is still acquiring those new capabilities.

None of those obstacles to acquiring “strike” are insurmountable, but they are challenging. Government officials engaged in this debate will have many critical issues to consider beyond the simple question of whether or not Japan should acquire strike capabilities. In the end, the pertinent question they will have to answer is whether the government is really able to spend the money, political capital and opportunity cost to make it count.


Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan.


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