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Record 5.3 tril. yen defense budget sought with missile shield system

In this Jan. 10, 2018 photo, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, second from left, visits a test complex of the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, ahead of the planned introduction of the U.S.-developed system to Japan. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Defense Ministry requested on Friday a record budget of 5.3 trillion yen ($47.6 billion) for the fiscal year starting next April, including costs to deploy a ground-based missile shield system to counter the North Korean threat.

The requested sum marks a 2.1 percent rise from the initial budget for the current fiscal year through March 2019, with defense spending expected to increase for the seventh consecutive year and reach a new high for the fifth year in a row under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Excluding the costs associated with the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan and others that are not yet fixed, the requested budget rose by 7.2 percent from the initial budget for fiscal 2018.

Despite the recent easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the budget request for fiscal 2019 shows Tokyo continues to view North Korea as a serious threat to Japan, and its continued vigilance against China's growing assertiveness in surrounding areas.

In its annual defense white paper released Tuesday, the ministry said North Korea's nuclear and missile programs still pose an "unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat" to Japan even after the historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in June.

The envisioned budget increase reflects the government policy to expand the annual average growth rate of expenses for main defense equipment from 0.8 percent to around 1.0 percent. The policy will likely be stipulated in a new five-year defense spending and procurement plan to be compiled by the end of the year.

In July, the ministry announced that two U.S.-developed land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense batteries would cost 268 billion yen, excluding maintenance and training expenses. But in the budget request for fiscal 2019, it is seeking 235.2 billion yen, mainly due to suspending funding for a function to shoot down cruise missiles.

The operational start of the missile shield may be pushed back from fiscal 2023 to fiscal 2025, according to the ministry.

The ministry also sought 81.8 billion yen to buy interceptor missiles, including state-of-the-art SM-3 Block 2As, and 7.5 billion yen to modify Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers so that they can launch them.

The total amount requested in fiscal 2019 related to ballistic missile defense is 424.4 billion yen.

Noting the need to bolster Japan's defense capabilities in outer space and cyberspace, the Defense Ministry also requested 26.8 billion yen to acquire a radar system to monitor the outer atmosphere, and 3.8 billion yen to set up an information gathering device to prepare for possible cyberattacks.

The ministry -- once under fire for an alleged cover-up of activity logs for Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force members participating in a U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan -- also sought 55.8 billion yen to develop a cloud-based data management system utilizing artificial intelligence to manage administrative documents properly.

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