The Suga cabinet approved a new missile defense plan on Friday, 18 December, replacing the previous plan suspended earlier this year to deploy an Aegis Ashore missile defense system purchased from the US. The new plan highlights the cross-cutting pressures on the Japanese government, as it manages China’s growing military power and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals, budgetary constraints, alliance management with the US, and lingering domestic opposition to Japan’s acquiring more offensive capabilities.
Instead of deploying Aegis Ashore, the new plan calls for acquiring two Aegis-equipped destroyers. While this alternative will avoid the conflict with local communities that complicated the Aegis Ashore plan, the new destroyers may do little to alleviate concerns about cost overruns with the Aegis Ashore system and could end up costing more than the original plan depending on technical choices made about the destroyers. The replacement plan also aggravates a problem that the Aegis Ashore plan was intended to address, namely operational stress and manpower challenges facing the Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) warships, which are on constant alert for North Korean activities.
At the same time, the cabinet shelved a decision on the acquisition of so-called “counterstrike capabilities,” systems that would enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to strike launch sites in neighboring countries (North Korea being the most likely target). The government would continue to study “strengthening deterrent power” and would continue to develop long-range “standoff” anti-ship missiles that could strike targets outside of enemy range. Next year’s defense budget will include roughly JPY 335bn (USD 3.25bn) to develop standoff missiles.
This decision does not come as a surprise. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe had hoped to use the suspension of Aegis Ashore to have a wide-reaching defense policy review that could lead to a decision to acquire counterstrike capabilities and draft a new national strategy to articulate a new approach to Japan’s defense. However, the transition from Abe to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga effectively foreclosed a decision on strike capabilities at this juncture. The most significant challenge for Suga has been opposition from Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) junior coalition partner. The nominally pacifist party has been vocally opposed to a move to acquire offensive capabilities and, while the party has been flexible on defense issues in the past, its leaders are likely wary of alienating its supporters heading into a year that will not only feature a general election but also Tokyo metropolitan assembly elections, a priority for Komeito. The LDP, dependent on Komeito volunteers and voters in key constituencies, is cognizant of the need to keep its coalition partner happy to safeguard its own electoral prospects. Despite his wishes, it would have been difficult for Abe, in the final year of his term, to overcome these obstacles. It is virtually impossible for Suga, a new prime minister with a limited mandate who is expected to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic, to spend political capital on an issue that could undermine the ruling coalition and risk public backlash. While the LDP’s defense hawks, who have been agitating for strike capabilities for years, accepted the need for compromise in the immediate term, they will likely keep agitating for a more definitive shift in Japan’s capabilities in the coming years.