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Editorial: Aegis Ashore missile defense costs run risk of ballooning without limit

The cost of the land-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System -- or "Aegis Ashore" -- that Japan is set to purchase from the United States is expected to swell to some 1.7 times the original estimate, the Japanese Defense Ministry has revealed.

Aegis Ashore uses capabilities already incorporated into systems on the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's Aegis vessels. Based on its previous purchases of Aegis-equipped destroyers, the Defense Ministry estimated that Aegis Ashore would cost around 80 billion yen (about $719 million) per system, and had heretofore explained publicly that combined with facility maintenance expenses, the full amount would come out to approximately 100 billion yen per unit.

However, the cost of just the system itself is now being quoted at 134 billion yen, and combined with the 30-year operation costs for the two that the Defense Ministry is planning to install -- one each in Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures -- the total is expected to be around 466.4 billion yen. Add to that the cost of facility maintenance, and the total is estimated to top 500 billion yen.

The ministry cited the enhanced performance of the system's radar as the reason for the price hike. However, we had always known that in order to protect all of Japan with just two land-based missile defense systems, we would need at least two times the radar capacity of the current system.

The government is set to review its National Defense Program Guidelines at the end of this year. It is only fair to deliberate plans to introduce a large-scale adoption of new equipment such as Aegis Ashore within such a review.

Instead, in December of last year, the Cabinet used the threat of North Korea as an excuse to approve a policy for the adoption of the Aegis Ashore system, putting any assessment of its functionality and price on the back burner. If that is not an example of a hastily made decision, what is?

Tensions surrounding North Korea diminished after a meeting in June this year between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, prompting some to question whether a new missile defense system is even necessary.

As North Korea-U.S. denuclearization negotiations have not progressed following the bilateral summit, the Japanese government argues that "the threat of North Korea remains," while simultaneously allowing the introduction of Aegis Ashore to be delayed.

The government had aimed to install the system in the 2023 fiscal year, but the U.S. has indicated that it will take about six years until the first unit is installed. If that is the case, even if the Japanese government signs a contract with the U.S. in fiscal 2019, the system will not be installed until fiscal 2025 or later, completely rendering moot the Japanese Cabinet's December 2017 rush to approve the system's adoption.

The Aegis Ashore system was likely the fastest, simplest way that the Japanese government could accommodate President Trump's pressure to purchase weapons from the U.S. in his bid to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with Japan.

Isn't Japan being taken advantage of, and being forced to accept the U.S.'s asking price? If the development of radars and other parts of the system were delayed, the cost of the Aegis Ashore runs the risk of ballooning to unforeseeable heights.

Without a convincing explanation on cost versus effectiveness, it is only natural for the governments and residents of municipalities where the systems are planned to be set up to protest their installation.

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