Japan Debates Pre-emptive Strike
By WENDELL MINNICK and SAM JAMESON, TOKYO
In the wake of North Korea’s July missile tests, Japan is accelerating its ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans and openly discussing what has long been a taboo subject in the pacifist country — that it may someday soon be forced to launch pre-emptive strikes to defend its territory.
“Radically speaking, to defend our country, it might be more suitable for us to strike enemy bases,” said Nobuki Kawamura, the director of planning and programming at the Japan Defense Agency’s policy bureau.
“But right now, in the current situation, we don’t have enough capability to attack enemy bases. We do have the air in-flight refueling tanker, but our F-15s are mainly for defense and they don’t have the capability to attack [North Korea].”
Kawamura cautioned that in the future, such wherewithal is possible.
“However, for the future, we should have such capabilities, not exactly prohibited by our Constitution but mainly due to policy selection. As of now, government policy is that we don’t have such capability and it is too early to discuss this option.”
Following Japan’s World War II defeat, under pressure from the United States and other powers, Tokyo adopted a rigid pacifist Constitution that banned the country’s right to wage war. The recent 61st anniversary of the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and three days later on Nagasaki, however, does not appear to have affected Japan’s enthusiasm for BMD and possible pre-emptive strike options, which could see Japan launching air strikes against targets in North Korea.
For decades, a small number within Japan’s defense and political establishment have wanted to shed the country’s pacifist mantle and play a more open military role.
Such conversations were publicly taboo and viewed as possible political suicide. But North Korea’s July 4 missile tests brought the debate out in the open, with top Japanese officials increasingly discussing the need for the country to build forces able to pre-emptively strike potential threats.
This slow, but steady, re-emergence as a military power in the region — with the North Korean as the major catalyst for that comeback — was in evidence at the 8th Japan-U.S. Security Strategy and Exhibition here Aug. 9-11.
While Japanese officials are debating the need to forge a pre-emptive strike capacity, such talk makes Japan’s Pacific neighbors nervous.
John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the International Relations Center, Albuquerque, N.M., says this drive for new capabilities is “very troubling to South Korea and China. Neither country is satisfied with Japan’s resolution of historical issues or its approach to current conflicts. A Japan that freely talks of bombing locations in Asia brings back some rather unpleasant memories.”
Despite massive Japanese investment across the region over the past decades, Japan’s neighbors still harbor resentment against Tokyo for its brutal World War II occupation of the region, during which Japanese forces committed such atrocities as mass killings and forced prostitution.
Continuing annual visits by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasakuni Shrine — a Shinto holy site that commemorates Japanese war dead, including 14 top war criminals — have fueled anti-Japanese riots in China and South Korea.
“So, as Japan moves to become more ‘normal’ in military affairs, expect worsening relations with its neighbors, even as the United States tries to arm-twist allies and adversaries alike into accepting the new reality,” Feffer said.
Eye on North Korea
Since July, senior Japanese defense and political officials have openly suggested that Japan should consider developing a preemptive strike option should North Korean threaten to launch nuclear-tipped missiles directly against Japan.
“Japan does things incrementally and policy changes are slow, but the North Korean missile test has shaken Japanese society,” said one U.S. defense source based here.
One of the first hints of a change occurred just five days after the North Korean missile tests. During an interview with NHK-TV, Foreign Minister Taro Aso was quoted as saying that Japan needed to equip itself with the means to strike enemy bases before they could launch missiles at Japan.
“We are not prepared to accept a position that we will do nothing until we suffer damage,” Aso said in the interview.
NHK also reported comments made by Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga in a speech that sanctioned that belief.
“We need to discuss arming the SDF [Japan Self Defense Force] with the capability of attacking enemy bases that threaten to inflict damage upon Japan in conformity with the division of responsibilities between Japan and the United States,” Nukaga said. “As a sovereign nation, Japan has the right to maintain power to defend the Japanese people.”
A June 11 article in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper quoted Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe as saying, “It is necessary to deepen the debate about whether to possess that [pre-emptive strike] capability.”
Both Abe and Koizumi want to amend Article 9 of the Constitution, which bans the military from conducting war.
“Japan is currently in a strange netherworld between a ‘peace constitution’ and a ‘normal’ military,” Feffer said. “It hasn’t quite developed a political culture for how to speak about military matters, at least those that relate to the application of force. That’s why, I believe, that politicians and government officials have been all over the map with their comments on preemptive strikes, acquisition of nuclear weapons, and naval interdiction.”
The Japanese mind-set first began to change in 1998 when North Korea launched a long-range rocket over Japan, and then in 2001 when Japanese Coast Guard ships engaged in a machine gun battle with a North Korean vessel boat and sank it.
However, Feffer believes there is also a time lag at work.
“The government is way out ahead of the public in terms of the actual use of force,” he said. “After the 1998 Taepodong launch, the Japanese public certainly became more hawkish on North Korea. But supporting a stronger defense — including missile defense — is a far cry from supporting pre-emptive strikes.”
Whatever the reason for Japan’s renewed enthusiasm for BMD and subtle signs of acceptance of pre-emptive strike options, U.S. defense contractors attending last week’s conference and exhibition here could not be more delighted.
“Ironically, North Korea’s firing of a missile over Japan created a BMD program in Japan quicker than without that shot,” said Michael Trotsky, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for air and missile defense systems. “Furthermore, as North Korea fired more missiles in July of this year, it gave Japan more initiative to go forward on BMD.”
After the 1998 incident, the Diet, or legislature, took up discussion on missile defense issues, and Japanese defense and political officials approached the United States about participating in its BMD program. This resulted in three programs: the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) antimissile system, the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block 4 missile system for Japan’s Aegis-equipped destroyers, and four radar bases equipped with the FPS-XX radar.
As a whole, the BMD program is not expected to enter full operational service until 2011.
In December 2004, the Diet passed new defense guidelines that made an exception to the nation’s arms exports ban so Japan could participate in joint production of PAC-3s and SM-3s with the United States.
In April, the contract was awarded for the co-production of the PAC-3 missile to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in conjunction with Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Lockheed builds the missile and launcher and Raytheon handles the radar and ground system.
Groundbreaking for a new missile production facility in Japan will begin at the end of this year, and production will begin at the end of 2007, say sources in Tokyo.
Despite the progress in BMD, the pre-emptive strike option debate will continue and change is expected to be slow. That said, Japan already is laying the foundation for offensive operations. One example is the procurement of in-flight refueling aircraft that will allow Japan to conduct long-range bombing missions.
There also is the potential development of nuclear weapons. Despite Japan’s insistence that such development will never happen, it does have about 400 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, which local defense sources say would allow Japan to assemble about a dozen warheads in nine months. Japan also has the option of modifying its J-1 (M-5) launch vehicles into intercontinental ballistic missiles.