Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet decision to procure two Aegis Ashore systems with the stated purpose of strengthening Japan’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities in the face of persistent North Korean provocations and threats drew heavy condemnation from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “[T]he adoption of a decision to purchase and deploy these systems should be viewed as disproportionate to the real missile threats in the region,” declared Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova in late August 2017, adding that they “may undermine strategic stability in the northern part of the Pacific.” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov was equally critical in December, and proceeded to threaten that the future presence of such systems in Japan is “something we certainly cannot fail to take into account in our military planning.”
Objections to decisions made by the United States and regional allies on the stationing of BMD assets in the Asia-Pacific region are not new. The deployment of a U.S. Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea in 2017 was met with heavy criticism from both Moscow and Beijing despite repeated reassurances from Washington and Seoul that the purpose of the deployment was to bolster South Korea’s defense against a potential missile strike from the North. For Russia, both the THAAD deployment and the Aegis Ashore decision represent the continued expansion “of the U.S. global ballistic missile defense system.”
Unlike THAAD, however, the two Aegis Ashore systems are intended for Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF). Tokyo has repeatedly conveyed this point to Russian officials, reassuring them that the systems will be operated by Japan. Moscow, however, continues to stick to its accusations. “We heard the allegations that Japan would control this system and that the United States would have no relation thereto,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists in mid-January 2018, adding that “[w]e have serious doubts that this is so.” This dubious Russian assumption has served as the basis for all of Moscow’s objections to the installation of the systems, and is likely to damage Russia’s relationship with Japan as well as further strain U.S.-Russia relations in the future.
Russia’s “Strategic Stability” Objection
A land-based version of the famed seaborne Aegis Combat System, Lockheed Martin’s Aegis Ashore will serve as the “upper tier” of Japan’s BMD system. Tokyo has yet to announce where Japan’s two Aegis Ashore installations will be built; however, potential locations include Akita prefecture and Yamaguchi prefecture in northwestern and southwestern Japan, respectively. The systems are expected to become operational no earlier than 2023 and cost approximately ¥100 billion ($912 million) each.
Tokyo plans to equip the systems with advanced exoatmospheric Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptors. Developed jointly by Raytheon and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the Block IIA is designed to intercept short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs, MRBMs, and IRBMs). Compared with the previous generation SM-3 Block IA and Block IB, the Block IIA is a markedly more capable missile, possessing much greater horizontal and vertical range as well as a higher burn-out velocity and a significantly more advanced kill vehicle. These factors make the SM-3 Block IIA a potential strategic interceptor, meaning Block IIAs could, in theory, be used to aid in defending against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). (The Block IIA has yet to be tested against an ICBM-class target).
Though Russian officials have not stated that their concerns about Japan’s planned Aegis Ashore systems emanate specifically from the potential capabilities of the SM-3 Block IIA, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has, on a number of occasions, accused Tokyo of being involved in “building the Asian segment of the U.S. global missile defense system” — a move which the Ministry claims contributes to strategic instability. If this accusation is interpreted as meaning that Russia fears Japan’s Aegis Ashore systems may undermine its strategic nuclear deterrent, then this accusation lacks merit. While an in-depth discussion on whether Japan’s Aegis Ashore systems threaten Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent is beyond the scope of this article, it suffices to note that — all other difficulties and obstacles put aside — Aegis Ashore systems stationed in Japan’s Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures will not pose a threat to Russian ICBMs launched at the U.S. mainland from sites in Siberia simply due to the distances involved.
Indeed, though Japan’s Aegis Ashore systems will likely include an “engage-on-remote” capability enabling them to engage targets at ranges exceeding those of their own radar systems, Russian ICBMs headed for the U.S. mainland will still remain beyond the 2,000 to 2,500 km (1,243 to 1,353 mile) operational range of SM-3 Block IIA interceptors deployed at the two aforementioned probable Aegis Ashore sites in Japan. Attempting to defend the United States against a Russian ICBM strike with Block IIA interceptors would require deploying them in very large quantities elsewhere, namely, close to the continental United States. Even then, the prospects of successfully intercepting large numbers of Russian ICBM warheads are very slim.
What then explains Russia’s vehement opposition to Japan’s Aegis Ashore decision and its conviction that these BMD systems “may undermine strategic stability?” Moscow has traditionally opposed the deployment of any BMD assets that it perceives as furthering the capabilities of the U.S. national missile defense system. It has done so regardless of the actual capabilities of the assets in question. Ergo, Russia’s objection to Japan’s Aegis Ashore decision could have simply been carried over from Europe, where Moscow has for years strongly objected to the installation of two U.S. Aegis Ashore systems in Romania and Poland (even though these systems, too, pose no threat to Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent).
The China Factor
Another, more obscure, factor that may assist in explaining Russia’s calculus on Japan’s Aegis Ashore decision is China. Like Russia, China does not differentiate between U.S. theater and national missile defense, and, like Russia, China has the military means to target U.S. and allied BMD assets in the region. For Moscow, China’s similar stance on BMD and the expanding offensive capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) present both an opportunity and a long-term concern.
They present an opportunity because they could allow Moscow and Beijing to jointly apply greater pressure on Japan as well as complicate defense planning for Tokyo and Washington. Of particular concern for Japan are Chinese and Russian cruise missiles. According to Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, Tokyo is contemplating adding an anti-air warfare capability to its Aegis Ashore systems — including the possible integration of Raytheon’s highly capable Standard Missile-6 (SM-6)- – in order to increase their survivability. In addition to cruise missiles and aircraft, upgraded versions of the SM-6 are also designed to provide terminal defense against SRBMs and MRBMs as well as hypersonic weapon systems. China has been particularly active with regard to the latter, and, as The Diplomat reported in December 2017, has been testing a medium-range hypersonic boost-glide system (capable of reaching targets in Japan) that could enter service around 2020.
That said, while the PLA’s rapidly expanding military capabilities are primarily directed at the U.S. and regional allies, they also greatly complicate Moscow’s desire to contain China in the long run. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and American moves to contain China in the Asia-Pacific have pushed Moscow and Beijing much closer together; however, mutual suspicions between the two are likely to endure.
As a result, the prospect of China fielding large quantities of conventional and nuclear-capable long-range cruise missiles, theater ballistic missiles, and theater-range hypersonic weapon systems in response to U.S. and allied missile defenses in the region represents a potential long-term concern for Russia as well. So, too, does the prospect of China expanding its ICBM arsenal for fears of it being undermined by U.S. and allied BMD assets. Hence, Russian Foreign Ministry complaints that the deployment of THAAD in South Korea and the installation of Aegis Ashore systems in Japan “will disrupt the strategic balance in Asia Pacific and beyond,” may very well also be a subtle reference to Russia’s uneasiness about China’s growing military capabilities.
Does Aegis Ashore Have Offensive Capability?
Another Russian accusation levied at Tokyo’s decision to deploy Aegis Ashore systems is that their installation would violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans conventional and nuclear ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles (GLCMs and GLBMs) with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km (310 to 3,417 miles). The Treaty also bans all launchers of a type that have contained or launched a missile considered by the Treaty to be a GLCM or GLBM possessing a range that falls within the above mentioned prohibited range region. According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Japan’s Aegis Ashore systems violate the INF because they are “capable of launching … cruise missiles.” More specifically, Russian officials and analysts argue that this is because Aegis Ashore utilizes “universal launchers” — i.e. the modular Mark 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) — which, they contend, is the same as the Mark 41 VLS “the U.S. Navy has used for many years to launch its Tomahawk cruise missiles.”
U.S. officials, however, have repeatedly disputed this claim, underscoring that Aegis Ashore systems have never contained or launched a Tomahawk cruise missile and are incapable of employing such weapons. As former Principal Deputy Secretary for Policy at the Department of Defense Brian P. McKeon, commenting on identical Russian allegations regarding the construction of two Aegis Ashore sites in Eastern Europe, explained: Aegis Ashore “lacks essential elements for launching a land-attack missile, including software, fire control hardware, and additional support equipment.” This point was recently reiterated in a statement by the State Department, which, in addition to the above, specifically emphasized that the Aegis Ashore vertical launch system differs from the sea-based Mark 41 VLS.
There are two likely raisons d’etre for Russia’s insistence that Aegis Ashore systems (both in Japan and in Europe) possess or will possess offensive capabilities. First, Russia could be attempting to divert attention from its own possible violation of the INF Treaty. Washington has repeatedly accused Moscow of testing a new GLCM — recently identified as the 9M729 (designated SSC-8 by NATO) — whose range falls within the region prohibited by the INF. Moscow, however, has not been cooperative in addressing U.S. concerns. As McKeon, commenting on the Russian GLCM in 2015 noted, “Instead of addressing or even acknowledging the concerns raised by the United States, Russia has attempted to deflect attention from its violation by claiming that the United States is violating the treaty.”
The second reason may be Russia’s long-standing fear of U.S. cruise missiles. Many Russian public and military officials as well as analysts perceive them as representing among the most prominent threats to Russia’s national security. In this respect, Russian air defense units routinely train to defend against cruise missile strikes. This includes units stationed in the Eastern Military District, which is the nearest of Russia’s four military district to Japan. In April 2017, for example, a number of the district’s surface-to-air missile (SAM) units practiced defending against a simulated “air-missile strike” (with a focus on intercepting cruise missiles) at the Telemba range in the Republic of Buryatia. More recently, in late December, MiG-31 interceptors from the Pacific Fleet’s 865th Independent Fighter Regiment based on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East practiced defending against a simulated cruise missile strike as well.
Apart from exercises, Moscow has dedicated a significant portion of its military modernization budget to the modernization of Russia’s air and missile defenses, including in the country’s Far East. As with previous years, deliveries of new and modernized equipment to Far Eastern air defense units continued through 2017. A notable example is the Russian Aerospace Forces 303rd Guards Mixed Aviation Division’s 22nd Guards Fighter Regiment based in Tsentralnaya Uglovaya Air Base near Vladivostok, Primorsky Krai. According to a blog run by the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), the regiment received over a dozen additional modernized MiG-31BM interceptors last year. In the future, these interceptors, along with the 22nd Regiment’s other modernized MiG-31s, will likely be transferred to a new regiment that will be based in the region as well.
Another notable example is the Aerospace Forces 93rd Air Defense Division’s 1533rd Guards SAM Regiment based near Vladivostok. According to Russia’s Ministry of Defense, at least one of this regiment’s battalions was re-equipped with the S-400 Triumf long-range SAM system in 2017 and assumed combat duty in December (the Defense Ministry initially reported that this regiment would be re-equipped with the S-400 in the second half of 2016; however, as evident by more recent reports, this did not happen). As customary for S-400 regiments, the 1533rd Regiment also includes a battalion of Pantsir-S1/S2 short-range gun-missile systems tasked with defending the S-400 (and other assets) against precision-guided weapons, including cruise missiles, and other threats.
Having commenced prior to Tokyo’s Aegis Ashore approval, the continued modernization of Russian air and missile defenses in the country’s Far East (as well as the aforementioned exercises in Russia’s Eastern Military District) are of no direct relation to Japan’s decision; nevertheless, as noted above, they reflect Russia’s deeply rooted fear of cruise missiles, which will be further exacerbated by the deployment of two Aegis Ashore systems in Japan (regardless of the inability of these systems to utilize such weapons). Moscow is likely to view the systems as a threat to key Russian military assets in the country’s Far East, notably the Pacific Fleet’s HQ in Vladivostok and its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) based in Vilyuchinsk, Kamchatka Krai.
It should be noted that the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk Block IV TLAM-E sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) has a range of 1,600 km (1,000 miles), meaning that, even if Aegis Ashore was capable of using it, Russian SSBNs based in Vilyuchinsk would remain beyond the reach of Tomahawks deployed at a possible site in Akita Prefecture. However, Russian analysts assert that the missile’s maximum operational range is much greater, and may therefore consider Vilyuchinsk a key potential target as well. Furthermore, while the United States is already capable of striking these and other potential targets in the Russian Far East with large numbers of SLCMs, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), and other means, Russian military planners may perceive Japan’s Aegis Ashore installations (in addition to the U.S. Aegis Ashore sites in Europe) as an attempt by Washington to encircle Russia with cruise missiles and as a potential pretext to a surprise attack.
Russia’s Silence on Japan’s Aegis at Sea
Interestingly, while Moscow is strongly opposed to the installation of Aegis Ashore systems in Japan, it has not, as some analysts have pointed out, objected to Japan fielding Aegis BMD-equipped ships in the past. Nor has Moscow voiced disapproval of Tokyo’s plans to expand its fleet of Aegis BMD-equipped ships from four to eight in the near future.
Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) currently operates four Kongo-class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs), which are equipped with an older version of the Aegis BMD system and SM-3 Block IA interceptors, and is upgrading two Atago-class DDGs to include a BMD capability as well. Additionally, the MSDF will introduce two newly constructed DDGs by 2020, which will have an export variant of the Baseline 9.C2 (BMD 5.1) software. Among other features, the Aegis Baseline 9.C2 (BMD 5.1) weapon system can use SM-3 Block IIA interceptors and provides an engage-on-remote capability. Once political obstacles are overcome, Japan’s new ships will grant the MSDF an unprecedented degree of interoperability with U.S. forces. With the engage-on-remote capability, a MSDF destroyer could launch and guide a Block IIA interceptor towards a ballistic target using targeting information provided by, for example, a U.S. Navy destroyer (without the MSDF ship needing to detect, identify and track the target using its own radar).
Russia’s silence on Japan’s expanding sea-based BMD capabilities, including potentially greater interoperability with U.S. forces, may therefore come across as rather puzzling. It appears to suggest that Moscow’s aforementioned allegations of U.S. control are confined only to systems which it expects will be at least partially manned by U.S. military personnel. In other words, Russia may not view Japan’s BMD-capable ships as a segment of the U.S. national missile defense system (and therefore not a threat to strategic stability) because it is confident that they are (and will be) manned by MSDF personnel. At the same time, Russia perceives the GSDF’s future Aegis Ashore systems as a segment of the U.S. national missile defense system and a threat to strategic stability simply because, unlike MSDF ships, it considers them likely to be largely manned and operated by U.S. military personnel.
Given Russia’s reluctance to reach a mutual understanding with the United States on the installation of two Aegis Ashore systems in Eastern Europe, it is unlikely that Moscow will agree to an appropriate verification regime in order to address its concerns regarding Japan’s future Aegis Ashore systems. Nor is it probable that Russia will accept additional reassurances from Washington and Tokyo on the subject matter. Moscow can therefore be expected to stick to its dubious allegations that the systems will form a segment of the “U.S. global ballistic missile defense system” and that their installation will constitute a “breach of the INF.” These allegations threaten to produce a long-lasting negative impact on Russo-Japanese relations, dimming the prospects of reaching a mutually acceptable resolution to the Kuril Islands dispute. They will also serve to solidify mistrust between Russia and the United States.
Guy Plopsky holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University, Taiwan. He specializes in air power, Russian military affairs and Asia-Pacific security. You can follow him on Twitter.