Asia Defense | Security | East Asia

Will Japan Pursue a Strike Capability in Lieu of Aegis Ashore?

Hard decisions lie ahead to make sure Japan has an effective defense without Aegis Ashore.

By Titli Basu for
Will Japan Pursue a Strike Capability in Lieu of Aegis Ashore?

An SM-3 (Block 1A) missile is launched from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Kirishima (DDG-174), successfully intercepting a ballistic missile target launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo

For defense officials in Tokyo, it is time to revisit the National Security Strategy (NSS). Following the monumental decision to cancel the deployment of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system in June 2020, the central debate consuming Japanese security thinking is straddling between missile defense and strike capability, or what is called “enemy base strike.” The National Security Council (NSC) has its work cut out in the coming months: find Japan an alternative to Aegis Ashore, while balancing technological precision and budgetary concerns in the post-COVID 19 economy.

Cancelling the Aegis Ashore system, which was one of the key pillars of the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) and Mid-Term Defense Program (MTDP), should not create a gap in Japan’s defenses. Thus, the NSC is engaging in a much larger discussion this summer on how to reinforce deterrence and hammer out a new direction in the NSS.

Going forward, there are colossal challenges in terms of both seeking Japanese public understanding on strike capability within the scope of Japan’s exclusively defense oriented posture and Article 9 of the pacifist constitution, as well as managing regional concerns over the “normalization” of Japan. Any possible policy shift in Tokyo will raise fundamental questions on the spear and shield nature of the alliance. Moreover, the cancellation of a $4.1 billion Aegis Ashore system during President Donald Trump’s re-election year will not go down well with the “America First” template practiced in alliance management. Furthermore, it will have implications for America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Striking the Right Note on Strike Capability

The political narrative on strike capability, constrained by constitutionality, has been built over the course of decades. Packaging strike capability within an exclusively defense oriented posture is key not only for domestic sensitivities but also for the strategic stability of East Asia, where the historical memory of Imperial Japan steers nationalism and domestic politics. Thus, Japan has reservation about claiming the capability for “pre-emptive strike.” It distinguishes between “enemy base strike” and “pre-emptive strike.” Tracing the domestic discourse on strike capability reflects the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) preference toward the labels of “self-defense counterattack capability” or “enemy base counterattack capability” to garner public support.

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In Japan, any policy debate on national security and defense turns into a constitutional and legal debate, which restricts Japan’s posture. Discussions on the revision of Article 9 steered by constitutional scholars may not have a full understanding on hard security matters related to Japan’s security environment and commensurate force posture required to deter threats. Japan would do itself a favor by acting decisively on “enemy base strike” in order to cope with the challenges in the regional security environment.

The national debate on strike capability is decades old. But what has drastically altered over the years is the strategic and military balance in East Asia. Japan is surrounded by China, Russia, and North Korea — nuclear powers, with highly advanced missile technology, supported by spiraling defense spending — with all of whom Tokyo has historical baggage and contested sovereignty disputes. The balance of power and order is changing in East Asia. The threat assessment in Japan’s major defense policy papers maintains that North Korea poses a “grave and imminent threat” with miniaturized nuclear weapons to fit ballistic missile warheads. Meanwhile, China has intermediate-range missiles and some Japanese argue there is a strike gap between the U.S.-Japan alliance and China.

Hence it is time for Tokyo to make tough decisions. Strategic thinkers have called for Japan to balance offense and defense capabilities. Leading security experts have favored getting a strike capability and urged serious debate on the feasibility of “excessive dependence” on the U.S. commitment in a post-COVID scenario. In Japanese security discourse, striking the enemy to neutralize its military capacity with the objective of securing Japan is a defensive military strategy – “offensive defense” or “active defense.” Moreover, it would be cheaper and more effective to combine strike capabilities with existing missile defense in cooperation with the Americans.

Japan’s political class weighed into the debate on strike capability way back in 1956. Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama argued that in case no other suitable means are available, Japan is permitted within the framework of the peace constitution to strike foreign military bases within certain limits. Domestic discourse intensified in 2005 following the public disclosure that in 1994 the military had conducted a study on strikes against enemy missile bases.

In 2017, the LDP Research Commission on Security proposed using the concept of “counterattack capability” to strike enemy missile bases. Japan is now seeking hypersonic cruise missiles and hypervelocity guiding projectiles. After the cancellation of the Aegis Ashore this June, LDP formed a study team, headed by former Defense Minister Onodera Itsunori to discuss alternatives such as “enemy base strike.” The group will prepare proposals for consideration in the coming weeks.

Japan getting strike capability will certainly alter East Asian security dynamics. While Tokyo will frame such capabilities as defensive, convincing the regional neighbors will be a colossal challenge. Critics have argued for some years now that the Abe administration has engineered an external threat theory to justify its remilitarization ambitions. Irrespective of the regional narrative, the threats are real and it is time for Tokyo to act.

Aegis Ashore and the U.S.-Japan Alliance

To manage threats from Pyongyang, Tokyo opted for Aegis Ashore over Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in December 2017. Now, the official narrative for cancelling Aegis Ashore is its doubling cost, technical complications, extended timeline, and domestic politics. Aegis Ashore was meant to add an additional layer into Japan’s existing ballistic missile defense system, not only to deal with Pyongyang but also to ease stress on Japan’s Aegis destroyers. The system’s deployment would have complemented American regional strategy. For Washington, Aegis Ashore in Japan had a bigger objective as it would have allowed the United States to redirect destroyers to other theaters like the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Moreover, it was also significant in terms of intercepting Pyongyang’s missiles bound for Guam or Hawaii.

At 60 years old, the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security has stood the test of time through the Cold War and post-Cold War decades and served as a linchpin in maintaining strategic stability in Asia-Pacific. But alliance management under Trump’s rhetorical and transactional dealings has created concerns for allies. Aegis Ashore was an expensive yet not fail-proof defense system that Japan pursued to ease off American critiques of the trade imbalance and alliance burden-sharing. Japan has often shopped for expensive U.S. military equipment, including 100 F-35 stealth fighters, to ease pressure from Washington.

But Tokyo’s cancellation of the Aegis Ashore was a surprise since Washington was invested in continuing technical discussions and deployment of Aegis Ashore. Alliance watchers suggest that the cancellation “rocked” an alliance otherwise used to close coordination. This may be attributed to Tokyo’s “fatigue in managing a disruptive president,” among other things.

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In the coming months, Japan will negotiate its Host Nation Support agreement with the United States, which demands a more equitable distribution of burden sharing. Tokyo has closely watched Seoul’s experience. Whether Tokyo can smartly leverage this as a bargaining chip during the negotiation or Washington can seize a better deal exploiting the escalating regional security situation remains to be seen.

The Road Ahead for Abe  

Japan’s maiden NSS came in 2013. The regional security situation has aggravated considerably since then, with systematic gray zone operations in the East China Sea by Chinese maritime militia and tremendous advancements in North Korean nuclear and missile technology. Today, securing Japan’s interests amid an intense Sino-U.S. strategic competition while coping with severe economic contraction in the post-COVID world defines Abe’s colossal challenge.

Although Abe has sealed his legacy in redefining the Japanese post-war security posture with a historic reinterpretation of Article 9 in 2014, further sealed by security legislation in 2015, his long-cherished dream of revising the constitution remains unfulfilled. His time is running out, and the succession battle for 2021 has already started in the LDP’s factional politics.

Meanwhile, Trump’s lack of nuanced understanding of alliance politics has eroded the value of the U.S. alliance system. Instead of evaluating allies through a unilateral balance sheet approach, alliances should be valued as the “shields of the republic” to uphold the balance of power and order. American allies in Asia and Europe all felt the heat of Trump’s disruptive presidency. Japan is no exception. Tokyo is weighing the depth of U.S. commitment to defend Japan under Article 5 of the Treaty. In this regard, some arguments are made in the domestic debate in favor of Japan becoming more self-reliant in terms of security.

While the fault lines in the U.S.-Japan alliance are becoming more pronounced today, nevertheless the resilience of this time-tested partnership can endure. Alliance managers will have to double down and coordinate more effectively in order to understand each other’s concerns and anxieties. Given the fluidity in regional security, alliance with the United States is not optional for Tokyo. The U.S.-Japan alliance together with Japan’s own national defense architecture constitutes the cornerstone for Japan’s national security. Any rethinking on Japan’s NSS this summer will be founded on the U.S.-Japan alliance as the key pillar of maintaining strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr. Titli Basu is an Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, India.