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Japan gov't rethink of Aegis missile defense renews questions on aggression, personnel

Japanese and U.S. Aegis warships and transport vessels are seen on a joint training exercise in the Pacific Ocean, in this file photo taken in November 2014, and provided by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

TOKYO -- The Japanese National Security Council (NSC) met at the prime minister's office on June 24 to begin discussing alternatives to the halted plans to deploy Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense systems.

The government will investigate how to fill the gap left by Aegis ashore before officially canceling the program. With a decision effectively already made to review missile defense, diplomacy and self-defense policies as described in the National Security Strategy (NSS) fundamental principles, the government aims to have a revised plan within the year.

Five government ministers are part of the review: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi and Minister of Defense Taro Kono.

Their desired revisions to the NSS go beyond missile defense, and a decision is expected as soon as the autumn on a wide-ranging strengthening of action to "guarantee economic security," which is set to include clauses on artificial intelligence (AI) and the latest technology. But the focus for the time being is to build a missile defense plan to take over from Aegis Ashore.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the government's junior coalition partner Komeito, said of the decision, "It felt very sudden. I would like them to explain thoroughly." Ahead of NSC meeting, Yamaguchi spoke candidly about his concerns regarding the plan's withdrawal with Prime Minister Abe in a separate discussion at the prime minister's office. Abe responded by saying he would offer a full explanation, but at present the government sees the decision on an alternative plan as its most pressing business.

On June 18, a suspected Chinese submarine was detected heading west through waters near to Amami Oshima island, in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Kagoshima. Chinese government vessels have also continually traveled through waters around the contested Senkaku Islands in southernmost Okinawa Prefecture. June 24 marked the 72nd consecutive day that Chinese government ships passed the islands. On June 22, one vessel briefly entered Japan's territorial waters. Taken along with North Korea's missile launches, the security environment on Japan's perimeters is increasingly tense.

Amid all this, the government had planned to deploy the Aegis Ashore missile system to two prefectures, Akita in the northeast, and Yamaguchi in the southwest. Working in conjunction with these land-based batteries, Japan would be able to deploy Aegis warships in the Sea of Japan and other strategic locations, and use SM-3 missiles to intercept enemy ballistic missiles outside the atmosphere, with any that are missed being dealt with by surface-to-air Patriot PAC-3 missiles.

The government intends to maintain this "contingency plan," and Defense Minister Kono has offered examples of what a replacement for the Aegis Ashore system could look like, including boosting Japan's Aegis destroyer fleet to eight vessels in March 2021.

But serious Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel shortages are hindering the proposals. As part of efforts against North Korean missile launches and Chinese maritime expansion, Aegis destroyers are being used to patrol the East China Sea and other areas. As the security environment worsens, so too do the security forces end up facing further staff shortfalls. In the midst of all this, adding just one more Aegis warship would require more than 170 billion yen (about $1.59 billion) plus 300 more sailors to crew it.

Discussions have been had in the government regarding shifting the Aegis Ashore launch equipment to floating islands in the Sea of Japan, but issues remain both technologically and financially on how to protect the mega-floats in the water, as well as how to respond to natural disasters like typhoons and tsunamis. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAD) missile system installed on South Korean soil has a limited range, and would require more than six installations in Japan.

Another focal point for government discussions will be whether the system chosen will have the capability to strike an enemy base before an attack is launched on Japan. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is expected by the end of June to establish an investigatory team made up of bodies including the party's Research Commission on National Security, headed by former Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera. It could present its advice to the government as soon as July.

It's envisaged that Izumo-class helicopter carriers, which are being converted into aircraft carriers, will be able to launch combat aircraft, fire long-range missiles at enemy bases, and use standoff missiles to strike from outside enemies' own weapons range. But the plans could infringe upon Japan's defense-only policy principles. Komeito's Yamaguchi has said, "Weapons that convey a threat of aggression are, based on the concept of defense-oriented policy, not in keeping with the meaning of the Constitution." It looks like making these plans a reality will be difficult.

(Japanese original by Yusuke Tanabe and Jun Aoki, Political News Department, and Yoshitake Matsuura, City News Department)

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