Japan pushes the boundaries of self-defenseTOKYO - Ostensibly for peaceful, non-military purposes, Japan has successfully launched its third intelligence-gathering satellite as part of recently revved-up efforts to boost its defense capabilities, either on its own or with its closest ally, the United States.
Monday's launch of the new satellite from Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima prefecture, southern Japan, came amid growing concerns about the missile and nuclear programs of neighboring North Korea, which sparked an international uproar and heightened regional tensions about two months ago by test-firing a volley of ballistic missiles.
These concerns have recently been exacerbated by renewed reports that North Korea might be preparing to test an atomic bomb. Last year Pyongyang declared itself to be a nuclear-weapons state but has not proved this beyond doubt by actually setting one off.
Shortly after North Korea's missile launches in July, Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga said Japan should consider possessing capabilities to strike North Korea's missile sites. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, in effect a prime minister-in-waiting, also said, "If we accept that there is no other option to prevent an attack ... there is the view that attacking the launch base of the guided missiles is within the constitutional right of self-defense."
Still, it is one thing to talk about defensively striking North Korean missile sites, and it is another to obtain the capabilities for doing so. One important element is an independent surveillance system. Another is an adequate anti-missile defensive system. Japan is moving to augment both of these capabilities.
The latest satellite is the third in a series of four that would provide Japan an all-weather capability to survey virtually any point in the world. The first two were launched in March 2003; the fourth and last is scheduled to take off next year. This month's launch had been planned long before North Korea's missile tests this past summer.
Two of the satellites, including the one launched this month, have optics that produce images of objects as small as 1 meter in diameter when photographed from outer space. The other two use radar imaging to penetrate cloud cover. The package will provide Japan an all-weather, all-day surveillance capability. In 2009 an optical satellite with even greater resolution is expected to be launched into orbit.
Critics of the surveillance program claim that sending up the satellites runs afoul of a resolution adopted in the diet, Japan's parliament, in 1969 that restricts the use of space to peaceful purposes. That's why the authorities carefully avoid describing them as "spy satellites". The program is under the direct supervision of the cabinet, not the military, but it is obvious that its primary purpose is to keep close tabs on North Korea's military movements.
Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are strenuously trying to push through a bill to review the 1969 diet resolution and allow the use of space for self-defense purposes.
A second part of its strategy is to deploy batteries of anti-missile defenses, in close cooperation with the US. It is anticipated that Tokyo will spend about a trillion yen (US$100 billion) beginning next year on developing the necessary hardware, first by importing missiles from the US and then by fabricating them under license.
The key element is the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 surface-to-air missile. PAC3 missiles are designed to hit incoming missiles that have escaped Standard Missile-3 (SM3) interceptors launched from Aegis-equipped destroyers at sea. They can intercept a missile at an altitude of up to 20 kilometers.
The first batch of the PAC3 missiles will be imported from the US and deployed in the Tokyo metropolitan region. But the Defense Agency is planning to have domestic defense contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd licensed to produce the rest. Although the cost of producing the missiles domestically is much higher than purchasing them from the US, the long-term costs, including maintenance, will be lower and Japan will also be able to boost its own missile production technologies.
Beyond that, the Japanese government decided last December to start joint development with the US of a new sea-based interceptor missile as a main pillar of the US-led missile defense system. The joint development cost of the new interceptor missile, an advanced version of the SM3, is estimated to be as much as $2.7 billion, with Japan shouldering up to $1.2 billion and the US paying for the remainder.
Japan's share will be spread over nine years starting in fiscal 2006. The two allies plan to begin production of the next-generation interceptor missile in fiscal 2015, which will be deployed on Aegis-equipped destroyers. Japan and the US have conducted joint technological research into the new missile since 1999, after North Korea's test-firing of a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan in August 1998.
Joint missile development has required changes in Japan's decades-old ban on arms exports. In December 2004 it adopted a National Defense Program Outline enabling the export of parts and components needed for the joint development and production of the advanced system. This easing of the arms export ban paved the way for Japan to move into the development stage of a new interceptor missile.
In July last year, the diet also revised the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) Law to allow the Defense Agency chief to order emergency missile intercepts without waiting for approval from the prime minister and the cabinet. Since North Korean missiles would reach Japanese territory in about 10 minutes, the defense chief could not afford to follow normal procedures for getting permission at a cabinet meeting to launch interceptor missiles.
Under the revised SDF Law, if there are no clear signs of a launch but conditions call for high alert and there is no time to seek consent, the agency chief can mobilize the SDF to stand by for any sudden attack and order an intercept under emergency guidelines approved in advance by the prime minister. Under the new law, the prime minister must report the results of any intercept to the diet shortly after launch.
Additionally, in early May, Japan and the United States signed a final agreement on the realignment of US bases and forces in Japan, which includes the movement of Japan's Air Defense Command to the US Air Force's Yokota base in western Tokyo. There they will create a joint missile-defense command center in fiscal 2010. Creation of the center is aimed at strengthening Japan's ability to detect and deal with enemy missile launches.
Rush to build anti-missile system
The Defense Agency plans to deploy the first PAC3 interceptor missiles in Saitama prefecture, next to Tokyo, by next March, as originally planned, and in three other prefectures, also adjacent to Tokyo, by the end of 2007, instead of the original March 2008 deadline. At the end of last month, the agency requested more than a 50% increase in its missile defense budget for fiscal 2007, which starts next April.
The budget request of 219 billion yen is mainly to pay for accelerating the deployment of PAC3 missiles. The agency's budget request, if approved by the cabinet and diet, would advance some PAC3 purchases from the US originally planned for fiscal 2008 or later, resulting in an increase in the number of PAC3 missiles to be deployed at SDF bases in the four prefectures surrounding Tokyo by the end of 2007.
Still, it will take five more years for the PAC3 deployment program to cover not only the Tokyo metropolitan area but also other areas of the country. For this reason, the Defense Agency requested recently that the US deploy a seaborne missile defense system around Japan as soon as possible.
The US Navy had already deployed, as of the end of August, the USS Shiloh, a cruiser equipped with both the Aegis missile tracking and engaging system and SM3 interceptor missiles, at the Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo. The Shiloh is one of three upgraded Aegis-equipped warships and is the first to be deployed outside the United States.
According to the US Navy, eight Aegis-equipped warships, including the Shiloh, are now stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base. Some of the warships started patrol duties in the Sea of Japan two years ago after they were equipped with capabilities to detect and track ballistic missiles. But among the eight Aegis-equipped warships, only the Shiloh can shoot down short- and medium-range missiles.
Defense Agency director general Nukaga reportedly sent a letter to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in late July requesting the provision of more PAC3 missiles than currently planned. In response, the Pentagon told Japan that it is possible to provide an additional 80 missiles. Japan now plans to deploy the imports in fiscal 2008 and 2009 instead of the ones produced domestically under license as originally planned.
Meanwhile, the US successfully conducted an anti-missile test at the beginning of this month. The target missile launched from Alaska was successfully shot down by an interceptor sent up from California. The test immediately drew harsh criticism from Pyongyang, which accused the US of threatening war. Despite the recent success, however, the US system has a mixed record, with only five successful tests out of nine, prompting critics to charge that the system, whose budget has reportedly grown to $10 billion a year, is a waste of money.
Japan's post-World War II pacifist constitution bars the use of military force in settling international disputes and prohibits Japan from maintaining a military for warfare. Successive Japanese governments have interpreted that as meaning that the country can have armed troops to protect itself, allowing the existence of its 240,000-strong SDF. But Japan has no cruise or ballistic missiles that can reach North Korea. Nor has it a fighter equipped with air-to-surface missiles with a range long enough to make a sortie to North Korea and then return safely.
Abe, a hawk and conservative, has expressed a strong desire to see the postwar constitution revised early, to expand the boundaries of Japan's military activities. The LDP presidential election that will determine whether Abe is the new Japanese prime minister is set for September 20.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]