Washington – On June 24, the National Security Council decided to cancel the planned deployment of Aegis Ashore. Just several days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the suspension of the plan on June 18, the NSC’s decision made it official: Japan will not move forward with acquisition of the land-based missile defense system.
The decision will trigger the process of revising three key documents for Japan’s national security policy: the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-Term Defense Program. In particular, the revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-Term Defense Plan will be critical, as these key defense policy planning documents, once revised, will lay out Japan’s alternative plan for missile defense.
Already an effort has been launched by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Research Committee on National Security, which is chaired by former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and includes several other former defense chiefs such as Gen Nakatani and Shigeru Ishiba. Their deliberation, which is anticipated to be completed by September so their recommendation can be incorporated into the fiscal 2021 defense budget request, will greatly influence the revision of the three documents.
Already media reports are almost exclusively focused on what kind of alternative missile defense architecture the government will decide on. In particular, speculation is intensifying over whether the Abe administration will leverage this opportunity to take a step in the direction of acquiring the capability to launch strikes on enemy bases.
While it is true that identifying an alternative to the missile defense architecture that had previously been envisaged is an urgent task, the revision of not only the National Security Strategy but also the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-Term Defense Program should be carried out in a broader context. In fact, as rushed as the process is going to be, Japan can optimize the opportunity to think through once again what its national security priorities should be and how it can best equip its Self-Defense Forces to ensure its capabilities remain robust.
The revision of the National Security Strategy was probably overdue because the postwar international order is growing considerably more uncertain as the United States ceases to play its historical role as the guarantor of an international order anchored by universal values. This has been accentuated by a series of unilateral changes made under the Trump administration. The disruption to an already weakened international system caused by the spread of COVID-19 has further raised questions about the capacity of existing international institutions, such as the World Health Organization.
At a time when the world is grappling with the impact of COVID-19 and U.S.-China tensions are escalating, some countries have demonstrated a willingness to take advantage of the situation. Increasing provocations by North Korea, including the bombing of North-South Liaison Office in the Demilitarized Zone, and measures that China has taken since March, most notably the enactment of the Hong Kong National Security Law, are notable examples.
In short, Japan finds itself in a much worse security environment even compared to 2017, let alone to 2013, when the current National Security Strategy was adopted.
The revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-Term Defense Plan also should not stop at merely coming up with an alternative to the current plan that is anchored in the introduction of Aegis Ashore. The 2017 National Defense Program Guidelines, for example, were noteworthy in the emphasis they placed on non-traditional domains such as space and cyber, and other emerging technologies such as electromagnetics and artificial intelligence. But the guidelines stopped short of laying out how these new domains and technologies would be incorporated into the SDF’s joint operations. The upcoming revision will provide a critical opportunity to build on the newly identified elements in the 2017 guidelines and provide a better picture of how they will be integrated into the way the SDF will operate.
Furthermore, as controversial as the decision was, there is a silver-lining in Japan’s decision to scrub the Aegis Ashore plan. It demonstrated that with courageous leadership the nation can walk away from a costly acquisition program that is anticipated to have further delays and cost overruns.
Japan can and should take this opportunity to revise the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-Term Defense Plan to take a closer look at other ongoing acquisition programs that have been experiencing delays and cost overruns to see any adjustment to the program is necessary. It can also use the lessons from the Aegis Ashore cancellation to look at upcoming major acquisition programs, such as the replacement for the F-2 fighter, to review program requirements.
The problem is a lack of time, which has resulted in rushing the revision processes of these key planning documents for Japan’s defense policy and force posture. The only one that remotely makes sense is the reassessment of Japan’s ballistic missile defense needs, given the timing of the government’s budget request for fiscal 2021. Even that process — two months or even less — is extremely rushed, raising concerns of how well the government can really think through other options that are more cost-effective yet allow Japan to enhance its deterrent capability against ballistic missile threats.
To call the government’s intention to complete these processes by the end of the year ambitious would be an understatement. However, the upcoming revision will be critical for ensuring Japan’s national security policy institutions are better equipped to respond to the rapidly evolving security environment. Those who are in a position to manage these processes should fight all temptation to take the easy way out by narrowing the scope of the revision to missile defense-related policy and programs.
Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.