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Justification shaky for Japanese government's cruise missile plans

In this Dec. 5, 2017 file photo, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera listens to a question during a session of the House of Representatives Security Committee. (Mainichi)

The government has its sights set on adding long-range air-to-ground cruise missiles to Japan's arsenal -- weapons capable of striking North Korea and which could be easily repurposed to attack enemy bases. The process to acquire them has already begun, with the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ready to approve on Dec. 22 a request for 2.2 billion yen (about $19.4 million) in the fiscal 2018 budget to cover related expenses.

The government is apparently looking at three types of missiles: the JSM air-to-surface missile, mounted on new F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters and with a range of about 500 kilometers; the JASSM-ER air-to-surface missile, mountable on F-15 Eagle fighters and with a range of about 900 kilometers; and the LRASM missile, an anti-ship weapon that also has a range of about 900 kilometers.

Considering the missiles' capabilities, the government can expect tough questions during next year's regular Diet session on whether the weapons conform to Japan's core nonaggressive defense policy. However, moves toward acquiring cruise missiles began months ago.

In January this year, the Defense Ministry began a behind-the-scenes study of long-range cruise missiles, their capabilities and stages of development. However, the government began seriously considering introducing the weapons in early August. That's when Itsunori Onodera, who had headed the evaluation team within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s Committee on Security, was appointed defense minister. Onodera had previously recommended that Japan acquire the capability to strike enemy bases, including with cruise missiles.

After he moved into the Defense Minister's office, Onodera stated repeatedly that the government "had no plans to acquire the ability to strike enemy bases, nor is it being considered," but was actually enthusiastic about introducing the missiles. Having just taken up his post, Onodera could not submit any cruise missile-related budget requests by the August deadline for submitting fiscal 2018 draft budget appropriations. However, the ministry increasingly began considering the missiles with an eye to including an appropriation in the fiscal 2018 budget when it was formulated at the end of this year.

The new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has also ushered things along. When visiting Japan in early November, Trump told reporters at a news conference with Abe, "The prime minister of Japan is going to be purchasing massive amounts of (U.S.) military equipment, as he should."

According to a senior Defense Ministry official, previous U.S. administrations have always been wary of providing Japan with offensive weapons like cruise missiles, worried that this could contribute to regional instability. However, the Trump administration's strategy has been to press U.S. allies to take on a greater share of their own defense, according to their capabilities. Add this to the profit motive -- Japanese purchases of more U.S. weapons would give the American economy a shot in the arm -- and Trump could hardly object to Japan buying Made in America long-range cruise missiles.

The Japanese government has had internal discussions about acquiring cruise missiles in the past. However, the idea was abandoned over objections from ruling coalition partner Komeito. When called upon by a senior Defense Ministry official to accept the current cruise missile plan in early December, a Komeito executive responded, "The explanation that this is for the minimal defense of the Japanese islands can't convince members of our party."

The ministry then sought to recast the issue, adding "the protection of (Japan's) Aegis vessels from the North Korean threat" to the reasons for buying the missiles. According to a senior Defense Ministry official, it was thought that "obtaining public understanding would be easier" if the missiles were connected to North Korea's quickening ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. The explanation was apparently enough to placate Komeito, which has signed off on the cruise missile plan.

In fact, the anti-ship missiles carried by North Korean vessels have a range of 100 to 200 kilometers, and "don't really present a threat to Aegis ships, so that's not a sufficient explanation for introducing cruise missiles," a senior Defense Ministry official told the Mainichi Shimbun. However, the phrase "North Korean threat" was enough to shut down opposition.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) leader Yukio Edano said in a Dec. 18 speech, "Are they going to introduce (cruise missiles) only so that Japan has the ability to strike enemy bases? If that's not strictly the case, then what checks are there on the missiles' use? We will ask about that during the next Diet session."

One ex-Cabinet minister with the LDP commented, "Will Mr. Onodera, who before becoming defense minister called for Japan to have enemy base strike capability, really be able to mollify the Diet by saying 'we're not thinking of acquiring that capability'?"

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