Japan: Joining the Nuclear Weapons Club? It Could.
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Japan: Joining the Nuclear Weapons Club? It Could.

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Conventional wisdom holds that Japan is what nonproliferation specialists call a "threshold" nuclear weapon state — a country that could stage a nuclear breakout virtually overnight should its electorate and leadership resolve to do so. Estimates commonly bandied about run from six months to a year. Toshi Yoshihara and I take aim at such assumptions in Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age. Japanese bombmakers might manage a crude device within that timeframe, but that's a far cry from a weapon ready for battlefield use.

Despite Japan's renown for high-tech wizardry and long experience operating nuclear power plants, it would take Tokyo far longer than a year to deploy a working nuclear arsenal. We're talking many years. As J. C. Wylie defines it, strategy is a plan for using available resources and assets to accomplish some goal. Strategy goes no farther than those implements can carry it — and strategists cannot simply conjure them into being.

Toshi and I see a variety of impediments to a Japanese breakout. Let's catalogue just a few. Consider the politics. It is certainly true that nuclear weapons are no longer the third rail of Japanese politics — a topic officials and pundits dare not touch lest it strike them (politically) dead. But Japan's painful past experience as a target of atomic warfare, its ardent sponsorship of nonproliferation accords, and the fury with which pacifist-leaning citizens and Japan's Asian neighbors would greet evidence of a bombmaking program add up to a forbidding political barrier.

That barrier is hardly unbreachable, but it would demand quite a feat of political persuasion on Tokyo's part. As the learned strategist Mike Tyson points out, "everyone has a strategy 'til they get punched in the mouth." Memo to nuclear-weapons advocates: duck!

Nor are the strategic, operational, and technical challenges less daunting. A nuclear triad — land- and sea-based missiles combined with weapons delivered by manned bombers — holds little promise in light of Japan's lack of geographic depth and the vulnerability of surface ships and aircraft to enemy action. That means fielding an undersea deterrent would be Tokyo's best nuclear option. But doing so would be far from easy. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force operates an impressive fleet of diesel submarines but has no experience with naval nuclear propulsion. And that leaves aside the difficulty of developing sea-launched ballistic missiles and their nuclear payloads.

Such engineering challenges are far from insoluble for Japan's scientific-technical complex but cannot be conquered overnight. A force of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile subs, or SSBNs, thus looks like a remote prospect for Japan. As an interim solution, the JMSDF might construct cruise missiles resembling the U.S. Navy's old TLAM-Ns, or nuclear-tipped Tomahawks. JMSDF boats could fire such missiles through torpedo tubes, the easiest method. Or, shipyards could backfit Japanese subs with vertical launchers — much as the U.S. Navy installed Tomahawk launchers in its fast attack boats starting in the late Cold War.

The problem of constructing nuclear weapons small enough to fit on a missile would remain — but nuclear-armed diesel boats would represent a viable course of action should Japan decide to join the nuclear-weapons club. Years down the road, then — not overnight — a modest Japanese nuclear deterrent might put out to sea. Will Tokyo proceed down that road? I doubt it. But the prospect no longer appears unthinkable.

Comments
10
Crazedsino
April 3, 2013 at 23:09

Always a great shock when the Chinese are faced with the prospect of balance in the western Pacific. This just in, They're are other players. The R.O.C and Japan are your technical curtain. Backed by the most advanced military on the planet.

Open your eyes
January 28, 2013 at 01:05

Are you Chinese not Korean? The reason I ask as you you seem to think Japan is the one trying to start a war in East Asia and are ignoring the obvious.
Only Chinese and maybe Hugo Charvez are that dillusional.
My country was threatened by Japan in WW2 though this is 2013 not 1939…

Koreansentry
November 22, 2012 at 13:54

If Japan is nuke ready then everyone in east asian region are probably nuke ready. The thing is Japan have just too many enemies within their region: China, N.Korea and Russia. S.Korea probably won't be helping Japan and as well as Taiwan, which probably do nothing. Re-arming Japan is probably not good idea for U.S either since Japan did attacked U.S before and they can do it again to provote WW3. Right now, Japan is probably most dangerous nation in East Asia because their right wing political power is trying to start fresh new war. Why Japan is aiming another war within the region is understandable since Japan is sinking faster than expected (economically) and U.S other hand have nothing to lose since Washington also need war to reclaim their superpower status check.

Jeremy
October 26, 2012 at 11:57

Dude, calm down.
 
You're obviously blinded by a hate towards the Japanese, or rather, Japan… you're what Orwell would call a "negative nationalist."

Borys
October 25, 2012 at 12:52

What is assumed here is that the Japanese have not done any real leadup work as to farbrication and delivery systems: I would imagine they have, and that the detailed operational knowledge would be easily found. And here is an interesting read for those with some time on their hands…
http://www.dcbureau.org/201204097128/national-security-news-service/united-states-circumvented-laws-to-help-japan-accumulate-tons-of-plutonium.html

MacTurk
October 24, 2012 at 13:59

Just one small change in a paragraph, and see how reality breaks in?
"Iran's bombmakers might manage a crude device within the timeframe of a year, but that's a far cry from a weapon ready for battlefield use.  Despite Iran's renown for high-tech wizardry and long experience operating nuclear power plants, it would take Teheran far longer than a year to deploy a working nuclear arsenal. We're talking many years. As J. C. Wylie defines it, strategy is a plan for using available resources and assets to accomplish some goal. Strategy goes no farther than those implements can carry it — and strategists cannot simply conjure them into being".
The poliical reality is that Japan, like Canada, is possibly classifiable as a "Screwdriver-stage Nuclear Power", but the political obstacles to becoming a fuly fledged nuclear weapons state are daunting in both cases.  Ignoring the political issues, the option of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on submarines, be they conventionally powered, or using Air Independent Power(AIP) would be well within Japan's technological reach.  They have a fleet of some of the largest and most advanced, conventionally powered, submarines in the world.  And they could always learn about AIP from the Swedes, the Germans, the Italians, or the Australians
In Iran's case, the theological obstacles are quite high, but any attack, by either Israel or the USA, would sweep those away, and unite the entire Iranian people in a drive for a full nuclear weapons capability.

MC
October 24, 2012 at 06:02

it's an all right piece, but the author is guilty of the fallacy of mirroring– perceives of Japan as "U.S. lite," a dominant, future-looking, 'leadership' type country. most japanese would rather just gracefully disappear from the world rather than build nukes and starting playing roulette

Clayton Newberry
October 23, 2012 at 12:21

I wouldn't bet the farm on underestimating the Japanese.

John Chan
October 23, 2012 at 00:26

Japan should go ahead to arm itself with nuclear weapons, beause
1. Japan could be true to itself like a samurai who rather armed himself to the teeth with empty stomach instead of survival with stomach full, then die off like Sakura with a bright blossom and a sudden end.
2. Japan should have the chance to even the score with the US for the nukes it took before its light goes off.
3. Japan’s nuclear arming will kill off the false hopes some of the Chinese have on Japanese as a beneficial neighbour, so that China can treat Japan appropriately as an unapologetic war criminal, and never be fooled by its superficial pacifist constitution.

Matt
October 22, 2012 at 14:49

Israel has reportedly gone down that very road with their diesel subs. If the US decided to help Japan as we do with so many of their weapons they could have deployable nukes within months.Certainly the North Koreans gained TEL's within months from China. We can and should play that game too. The US and Japan need to respond to China's provocations with moves to help deter future provocations.

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