US urges Japan to boost defenses against North Korean nukes

The United States has welcomed Japan’s planned introduction of a land-based variant of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, but there are growing calls in Washington for Tokyo to acquire strike capability to further boost deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat.

American experts say the deployment of Aegis Ashore will be a significant step in strengthening Japan’s missile defense, but that even such an advanced platform is not perfect for interception, especially because North Korea is stepping up its ability to launch multiple missiles simultaneously.

“With North Korea demonstrating increasingly sophisticated missiles and threatening to sink Japan with nuclear weapons, Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe should consider making strike capability a top priority,” said Jeffrey Hornung, a Washington-based political scientist at the Rand Corporation, a US think tank.

In a meeting Nov. 6 with Abe in Tokyo, President Donald Trump underscored the “unwavering” commitment of the United States to the defense of Japan, including extended deterrence backed by the full range of US nuclear and conventional defense capabilities, according to the White House. Trump urged Abe to purchase more defense equipment from the United States.

Japan's Prime Minister Abe (left) shakes hands with President Donald Trump during a visit Nov. 6, 2017. Photo from White House Flickr.

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe (left) shakes hands with President Donald Trump during a visit Nov. 6, 2017. (Photo from White House Flickr.)

But it was not known if Abe and Trump discussed Japan’s potential adoption of strike capability, or what some refer to as “counterattack capability,” as the US envisages Tokyo acquiring the ability to undertake retaliatory strikes against an opponent’s missile facilities and supporting infrastructure, as opposed to first-strike capability.

Such capability would surely bolster security cooperation, intelligence exchange, and alliance management between the United States and Japan, a development that security experts say would be effective in deterring any kind of attack against the two countries.

Some argue the resounding victory by Abe’s ruling coalition in the Oct. 22 general election could stimulate debate in Japan about the possible pursuit of strike capability, especially as the Defense Ministry plans to draw up its next five-year plan for defense procurement and update the National Defense Program Guidelines in late 2018.

“Prime Minister Abe has the political capital and the reasoning to begin to talk more specifically about the need to prepare or consider counterattack capability,” said James Schoff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, citing the rising nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the Prime Minister's Official Residence the Kantei, in Tokyo, Aug. 18, 2017. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence the Kantei, in Tokyo, Aug. 18, 2017. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

“I think the chance of that happening or that becoming a more high profile issue is greater now as a result of the election,” Schoff said.

Referring to the political stability in Japan after Abe’s victory, Hornung said, “Now the Abe administration can have a more long-term view about defense policies and what capabilities they want to acquire in the years ahead.”

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Debate about Japan adopting strike capability gathered steam in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party following the simultaneous firing on March 6 by North Korea of four ballistic missiles — three of which landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan — and Pyongyang’s announcement that the action was a drill simulating a strike on US military bases in Japan.

On Aug. 6, Abe said in a news conference that “at this point,” he was not considering acquiring such capability. North Korea, however, has continued to increase its bellicose threats and provocative acts against the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

Photo from Rodong Sinmun.

(Photo from Rodong Sinmun.)

Pyongyang conducted intermediate-range ballistic missile launches over northern Japan into the Pacific on Aug. 29 and Sept. 15, as well as its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3, with the detonation of what it said was a hydrogen bomb that can be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

On Sept. 13, Pyongyang’s Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee said, “The four islands of the (Japanese) archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb” launched by North Korea, and that “Japan is no longer needed to exist near us.” The committee issued a similar warning on Oct. 28.

With North Korea accelerating development of deliverable nuclear weapons that could reach as far as the United States, Pyongyang has suggested it could detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean — a threat that prompted Japanese defense officials to speculate that a nuclear-tipped missile may fly over Japan.

Schoff and Hornung recommend that Japan pursue strike capability in “a modest form” so that it will not become too expensive. They also stress the need to make sure that such capability falls within Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented policy, because the issue would be politically sensitive not only domestically, but to neighboring countries such as South Korea and China.

Maj. Toru Tsuchiya, Japan Air Self-Defense Force, Japanese F-35A foreign liaison officer and Lt. Col. Todd Lafortune, Defense Contract Management Agency Lockheed Martin, F-35 acceptance pilot, shake hands Nov. 28 during the arrival of the first Foreign Military Sales F-35 at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. USAF photo by Tech. Sgt. Louis Vega Jr.

Maj. Toru Tsuchiya (right), Japan Air Self-Defense Force, Japanese F-35A foreign liaison officer and Lt. Col. Todd Lafortune, Defense Contract Management Agency Lockheed Martin, F-35 acceptance pilot, shake hands Nov. 28 during the arrival of the first Foreign Military Sales F-35 at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. (USAF photo by Tech. Sgt. Louis Vega Jr.)

Schoff said the proposed measure, therefore, should not involve hardware such as long-range strategic bombers and attack aircraft carriers, but equipment like Tomahawk cruise missiles for Aegis-equipped destroyers and air-to-surface missiles that can be loaded onto new F-35 stealth fighter jets of the Air Self-Defense Force.

“You don’t want to spend your whole defense budget on this capability that you hopefully will never have to use,” he said.

Despite the likelihood that Seoul and Beijing would criticize Tokyo for “re-militarizing” itself with the proposed capability, Hornung said Pyongyang’s advancing military capabilities have “drastically changed the threat environment.”

“If the existing ballistic missile defense system has gaps, any means for Japan to strengthen its deterrence capabilities should be welcomed,” he said. “Japan no longer has the luxury to be complacent about its security threats.”