Japan has formally cancelled its plans to procure two Aegis Ashore missile defence batteries after a meeting of the National Security Council considered the matter, due to concerns that the booster rocket on the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA interceptor missile could fall on nearby civilian communities instead of within the military bases from where they would have been launched.
Defence Minister Taro Kono announced his intentions to suspend the program on June 15 so that the matter could be examined further. On Thursday, after speaking to the National Security Council chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the day before, Kono told lawmakers, “after deliberations at the NSC, we have come to the decision to cancel the deployment in Yamaguchi and Akita prefectures,” according to Kyodo News.
The two sites, one at the northern end of the country and one in the south, were meant to supplement ship-based anti-ballistic missile capabilities to protect the country against possible missiles from North Korea or China.
According to Kyodo, the Defence Minister cited technical problems and increasing costs, as well as strong local opposition due to the fact that the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor couldn’t be altered to control specifically where the rocket booster would land.
According to a report by USNI News, the SM-3 Block IIA – a missile that was co-developed by Japan and the US – has a smaller impact area for where the rocket booster could fall than other missiles that are compatible with the Aegis Ashore system, such as the SM-3 Block IA or IB.
Nonetheless, after selecting the Aegis Ashore locations, the safety concerns of local communities in adjacent areas led Japan to search for ways to further narrow the area where the booster could fall, based on potential winds and other factors. The Japanese government wanted to guarantee that the booster would land on military property or at sea, rather than on local civilian neighbourhoods.
After conducting exhaustive technical investigations, it was determined that guaranteeing that all civilian property would be safe was not technologically possible. Narrowly selecting where the booster would fall would require a different kind of missile altogether optimized for that feature, rather than the SM-3 IIA, which is optimized to have a longer range and a bigger warhead than previous BMD interceptors.
Kyodo reported that Kono also told lawmakers that there were no alternate sites for the Aegis Ashore instalments, so the effort was cancelled. LINK
The two other Aegis Ashore installations – in Romania and Poland – are located at more remote military areas, with the risk a falling booster poses to civilian infrastructure being minimal. The House Armed Services Committee is considering legislation to consider the deployment of an Aegis Ashore site at Fort Drum, New York; that site, too, would protect civilian infrastructure because the launchers could likely be set up with the booster dispersion area contained within the fences of the large, remote Army base.
In terms of personnel at the sites, at the existing Aegis Ashore site in Romania the US Missile Defense Agency oversaw the acquisition and construction of the system and then turned it over to the US Navy for operations, with about 100 personnel from the 6th Fleet operating the site. A similar arrangement was being considered as a guideline for planning the operation of the Japanese anti-missile systems.
The Cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the decision to purchase two Aegis Ashore systems in December of 2017. In a press conference announcing the decision a Japanese official explained that:
“Aegis Ashore would go a long way in supplementing the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s fleet of Aegis-equipped destroyers, both in terms of range and ability to handle multiple threats at once. He made clear that “the threat against our national security from North Korea’s nuclear and missile development has become more serious and imminent than before and has risen to a new level,” and that two batteries of Aegis Ashore were needed to ensure round-the-clock protection.
As Aegis Ashore is capable of using the SM-3 Block IIA, we understand that the range and capability of our defense will improve. Currently, the MSDF’s Aegis-equipped destroyers are responsible for missile defense, but given that this task must be performed constantly, on a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year basis, it is desirable to deploy a land-based system,” he said, according to an English translation of the press conference.
The MSDF currently possesses four BMD-capable Aegis-equipped destroyers, and the number will increase to five, and ultimately, we will firmly defend Japan with a fleet of eight Aegis-equipped destroyers. However, the Aegis-equipped destroyers are originally not intended only for BMD but also for performing various tasks, including the defense of the southwestern region. When the Aegis Ashore system has been completed, the Aegis-equipped destroyers will be able to perform various tasks, making it possible to defend Japan more effectively.” LINK
Without Aegis Ashore, Japan will rely on what will soon be a fleet of eight Aegis-equipped destroyers in the Kongo, Atago and Maya classes of DDGs, as well as land-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile defence coverage. Although it was previously reported that the Japanese government was considering deploying the ‘Aegis Ashore’ on some type of artificial islands or floating platforms, the latest announcement suggests that this option has also been ruled out.
Meanwhile, an interesting article has appeared in the Japan Times outlet (Confrontational approach to China: Emotionally satisfying, strategically short-sighted), in which the author argues that Japan should consider a more balanced approach to its defence rather than continuing its policy of absolute reliance on the US and adopting a confrontational approach with its regional neighbours. LINK
Japan’s troubled relationship with its former colony and erstwhile ally South Korea has also not improved; most recently, Japan told the US that it opposes including South Korea in the G7, an unnecessary and arrogant proclamation that is certain to irk its supposed ally. LINK
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