Japan Mulls a Preemptive Strike Capability

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Japan Mulls a Preemptive Strike Capability

Tokyo says it has the right to attack imminent threats. The political repercussions could be huge.

Finding itself in an increasingly complex and hostile security environment, Japan has taken the first steps towards developing a pre-emptive first-strike capability. This is a controversial move in a region that remains wary of a potential return to Japanese militarism.

Just a few years ago, the idea that the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) would be given the ability to conduct operations that go beyond “self defense” would have sounded ludicrous, not to mention that offensive capabilities would have contravened a longstanding interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution.

But North Korea’s continuing belligerence and pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, as well as China’s growing assertiveness and sovereignty claims, both appear to be changing Tokyo’s calculations. Another factor that is now making such ruminations possible is the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, which – though more in the concept stage than an actual policy – has manifested itself more tangibly through Washington’s willingness to reassess the role of JSDF in regional security. The budgetary constraints with which the U.S. military must now conjugate have made burden-sharing all but inevitable. One outcome is Washington is accepting a more muscular defense posture for Japan.

Just a few months ago in the wake of North Korea’s third nuclear test, Japan’s defense chief, Itsunori Onodera, said in an interview with Reuters that his country had “the right to develop the ability to make a pre-emptive strike against an imminent attack”, though he added that it had no plans to do so for the time being. Debate on such matters is not new, and usually occurs following a missile or nuclear test by the DPRK. But under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the government has shown itself much more willing to stretch interpretations of the constitution, if not to revise it altogether.

Less than three months after Onodera’s interview, reports emerged that Tokyo was working on a new defense policy framework that, at its core, made provisions for the development of a first-strike capability. Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislator and head of the LDP’s National Defense Division, Yasuhide Nakayama, made the recommendations and said that Pyongyang’s nuclear program and the Chinese intrusions in the disputed East China Sea waters had created an atmosphere where people in Japan felt “extreme anxiety about national security.”

LDP officials maintain that pre-emptive strikes would only be carried out when an imminent attack on Japan from a specific site was confirmed. However this policy raises questions about the legality of pre-emptive action and the reliability of intelligence used to assess various scenarios (for example, pre-emption raises the risks and costs of miscalculation). Any move in that direction — which the National Defense Program Guideline, set to be released by the end of 2013, will make clearer — will require Tokyo to reassure its nervous neighbors about a military revival, or “resurgent chauvinist sentiment,” in Japan. Another important question to ask is whether a policy of pre-emption would extend to Japan’s security allies as well.

There is little information on the type of capability the JSDF would seek to carry out such operations, though a ballistic and/or cruise missile component, perhaps something akin to Taiwan’s Hsiung Feng IIE land-attack cruise missile, is not unfeasible. Former Japanese defense minister and the second highest-ranking member in Abe’s LDP, Shigeru Ishiba – along with a growing number of Japanese politicians – seem to favor the development of long-range cruise missile technology.

The new defense policy framework seems to focus primarily on North Korea and the threat that its missiles pose to Japan, South Korea and U.S. bases in the region. However, China also likely figures in their plans — including scenarios involving DF-15 and/or DF-16 ballistic missile attacks against U.S. bases in Okinawa. The risks involved in pre-emptive strikes in Chinese territory are much greater, however, especially considering China’s increasingly formidable air defense systems.

Unless there is a dramatic shift in Tokyo or in Japan’s security environment, the current context seems highly conducive to the emergence of a more assertive JSDF. A pre-emptive capability is one component, and a highly controversial one at that. Whether it would increase or undermine Japan’s security remains to be seen, and will in part be contingent on how Tokyo handles the political repercussions of such a move.