Japan-US joint defense operations increase amid regional uncertainty
By THE JAPAN NEWS/YOMIURI Published: March 30, 2018
Editor's note: Thursday marked two years since Japan's security-related laws came into force. How can Japan deal with North Korea, which has continued with its nuclear and missile development, and China, whose maritime advances are becoming increasingly assertive? This is the first installment of a series examining the key defense challenges facing Japan.
TOKYO — In November 2017, a B-1 strategic bomber of the U.S. Air Force took off from Andersen Air Force Base in the U.S. territory of Guam and flew above the Pacific Ocean to airspace near the Kyushu region. There, F-15 fighter jets from Japan's Air Self-Defense Force joined the B-1 bomber in mid-flight. As the B-1 flew toward the Korean Peninsula, the F-15s occasionally flew close to the bomber; at other times, they kept their distance while staying vigilant for suspicious aircraft that might approach the bomber.
This was the first operation to protect U.S. aircraft conducted under the security-related laws. A B-1, which can fly from Guam to the Korean Peninsula in about two hours, can carry many precision-guided bombs. It is considered one of the main weapons that would be called into action in a contingency on the peninsula.
The laws expanded the range of situations in which the SDF can use force to protect its own weapons and other items during peacetime – including the protection of foreign military forces conducting activities to defend Japan.
This boosted the integration of Japan-U.S. operations. Based on the laws, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has, since last year, supplied fuel once or twice a month to U.S. Aegis-equipped vessels conducting warning and surveillance activities against North Korean ballistic missile launches.
According to figures released by the Defense Ministry, Japan and the United States conducted joint exercises 62 times in fiscal 2017 – more than triple the 19 conducted in fiscal 2015, before the laws were enacted.
In his policy speech delivered in January, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the SDF had conducted a mission to protect a U.S. vessel and aircraft for the first time based on the laws. Abe highlighted the significance of this development. "An alliance that allows two nations to provide mutual aid will further deepen their ties," he said.
Moves to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula are progressing. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea, made a surprise visit to China and held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday. Kim is scheduled to hold talks with South Korea's president on April 27, and a U.S.-North Korea summit meeting is slated to be held by the end of May.
However, a senior Japanese government official emphasized that the nation will not be letting down its guard. "If the U.S.-North Korea talks break down, tensions will rapidly rise," the official said. "The nation must ensure it is well prepared."
The government opted to introduce a missile defense system at the end of 2003. But in a mock drill in 2004, it failed.
Under the drill's scenario, North Korea fired 20 Rodong missiles, which have a range of about 1,300 kilometers, toward Kanto over an about 30-minute period. While 18 missiles were intercepted and another failed to launch from North Korea, the remaining projectile landed around Tokyo's Ichigaya district where the Defense Agency – now the Defense Ministry – was located.
The drill was conducted on the assumption that four Aegis-equipped destroyers from Japan and the United States had been deployed around the Sea of Japan and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air guided missile interceptors had been deployed throughout the nation. "The drill was based on estimates for the future, so the result wouldn't really change if the same drill was held again," a government source revealed.
North Korea's ballistic missiles are a pressing threat to Japan's national security, with Pyongyang firing about 40 ballistic missiles in 2016 and 2017. It is estimated North Korea possesses several-hundred Rodong and Scud-ER missiles, which have ranges of about 1,000 kilometers. Those types of ballistic missiles are expected to be its main weapons in a strike on Japan.
North Korea is working toward miniaturizing nuclear warheads, meaning the nightmare scenario of nuclear missiles being aimed at Japan is becoming more of a reality.
Currently, four Aegis destroyers with missile defense capabilities have been deployed. One Aegis ship is said to be able to deal with two or so ballistic missiles at the same time. In the event of a "saturation attack" in which an overwhelming number of ballistic missiles are simultaneously fired, "It would be difficult to intercept all of them," a senior Defense Ministry official said.
The ministry is working to enhance the defense system. In fiscal 2020, it will possess a total of eight Aegis destroyers, including both renovated and newly built units. The ministry plans to deploy a land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense unit in Akita Prefecture and another in Yamaguchi Prefecture, with operations scheduled to begin around fiscal 2023.
In addition to the North Korean threat, Japan is wary of China's cruise missiles. The government is working on an integrated air-and-missile defense (IAMD) initiative to simultaneously respond to both cruise and ballistic missiles.
However, improving a missile defense system has its limitations. To deal with North Korea, Japan must depend on the "extended deterrence" (see below) afforded by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
A mood of reconciliation has drifted over the Korean Peninsula as Kim Jong Un pursues dialogue. Nevertheless, the Japanese government is concerned that Kim's approach could end up as a way for North Korea to buy time.
It cannot be denied that the United States might prioritize a freeze on North Korea's development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – capable of reaching the U.S. mainland – while not addressing the issue of short– and medium-range missiles that put Japan in range.
The United States is obliged to defend Japan under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, but Japan is not obliged to reciprocate. Tokyo is only obliged to provide facilities and land for U.S. bases. Frustrations are smoldering in the United States over this unbalanced state of relations.
"Japan needs to deepen cooperative relations with the United States based on the security-related legislation so that Washington thinks Tokyo is an indispensable partner," a senior Defense Ministry official said. "That will lead to the United States more earnestly addressing Japan's defense."
The government is looking into possessing a defensive aircraft carrier as the next step for Japan-U.S. cooperation.
If the Izumo, an MSDF destroyer, has its deck remodeled, for example, F-35B fighter jets capable of short take-off and vertical landing can be operated from it. If the U.S. Marine Corps' F-35B jets are refueled on the Izumo, that development would become "a symbol of the Japan-U.S. alliance," a senior Defense Ministry official said.
When asked about remodeling the Izumo into an aircraft carrier at the House of Councillors' Budget Committee on March 2, Abe said, "To ensure the deterrent power thoroughly, conducting various research and study is our responsibility."
To counter China, which has continued to boost military spending, and North Korea, it is vital for Japan to cooperate with the United States, the world's largest military power.
In a review of the National Defense Program Guidelines to be released at the end of this year, finding ways to best embody the Japan-U.S. alliance, including the possession of an aircraft carrier, is expected to be a major agenda item.
The concept of deterring a third country strike on an ally by showing the will to retaliate not only when one's own country is attacked, but also when an ally is targeted. The United States has committed to providing an extended deterrence to Japan and South Korea, including through a "nuclear umbrella." Japan's current National Defense Program guidelines say: "With regard to the threat of nuclear weapons, the extended deterrence provided by the U.S., with nuclear deterrence at its core, is indispensable."