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Gov't, parties must be honest about missile defense's true capabilities

A PAC-3 Patriot missile battery is seen at the Ground Self-Defense Force's Camp Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture. (Mainichi)

Japan's general election campaign is being fought in the midst of what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls a "national crisis," namely the growing threat presented by North Korea's ballistic missile and atomic weapons programs.

Nevertheless, missile defense has not caught fire as a campaign issue. Why is that? After all, anti-missile systems are supposed to be Japan's last line of defense against ballistic missile attacks.

Looking at the election pledges of the major parties, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has promised to acquire the "Aegis Ashore" anti-missile system, the land-based version of missiles carried on Aegis vessels, while the Party of Hope also refers to missile defense. However, even as the United States military and the U.S. defense industry compete to develop these systems, there is very little information available to the Japanese people on how effective the technology actually is.

I suspect that Japan's politicians do not really know either. For example, in 2007, then Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma revealed during a speech that he believed missile defense systems "can eliminate 99 percent" of incoming missiles. However, in 2009, then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshitada Konoike commented in the Diet, "It's very hard to hit a pistol bullet with another pistol bullet," suggesting he believed shooting down an enemy missile was well-nigh impossible.

If two major figures from the ruling LDP make diametrically opposed statements on the technology, then there is no way the average taxpayer will be able to understand its true capabilities. Thus, the Japanese government should perform its own evaluation and make its own conclusions about missile defense, and conduct joint Japan-U.S. tests of the technology so that the people can have an informed debate on its efficacy.

I remember that in 2000, 50 U.S. Nobel Prize-winning scientists presented then President Bill Clinton with a letter opposing a national missile defense program. The main reason given for their opposition was that the scientists doubted shooting down incoming missiles was technically feasible.

On the other hand, it can be said that missile defense technology has come a long way in the last 17 years. The problem from the perspective of Japan -- a very profitable missile defense system customer -- is that virtually no debate has taken place here regarding those technological issues.

I have seen numerous U.S. missile defense tests firsthand, and understand the systems have limits. If Japan trusts in these anti-missile missiles too much, I believe there is a real danger that our country could make a serious diplomatic miscalculation. Those 50 scientists also considered diplomacy important in eliminating the threat of missile attack.

The "national crisis" Prime Minister Abe has been talking about did not happen in a single day. North Korea's intentions have been obvious since 1998, when it first launched a missile over Japan.

So, over all the intervening years, has the Japanese government strengthened and expanded diplomatic measures to douse the North Korean threat before it became a crisis? Missile defense is very expensive, but can the technology truly protect the people of Japan? If a statesman is throwing around incendiary terms like "national crisis," this is a question that needs to be answered. (By Hiroshi Fuse, Editorial Writer)

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