Japan was among the first countries to participate in the U.S.-led Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) project and decided to introduce its own BMD system in 2003. BMD is a highly integrated system with satellite radars to detect a missile and address it using a multilayered anti-ballistic missile system. However, so far Japan’s BMD cannot possibly function without U.S. technological and military capabilities, and most of Japan’s BMD developments are predicated on the assumption that the U.S. military will remain a key partner. Over the course of 15 years since the system’s introduction, not only has BMD been an effective tool to strengthen the U.S. alliance and internal defensive capabilities, but also it has created a platform resulting in a highly complex integration of the two militaries. Japan can no longer say no to the United States — not just because of the broader alliance relationship but because of overreliance on and integration with the U.S. military when it comes to defending Japan against ballistic missiles.
BMD has served Japan’s strategy very conveniently, enabling Japan to join the regional offense-defense arms race despite its pacifist constitution. The nature of BMD as a defensive system is a perfect fit for Japan’s strategy of “exclusively defense-oriented defense,” under which Japan has focused on defensive capabilities while relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. In a similar vein, BMD also strengthens the architecture of the U.S.-Japan security alliance – known as the “Sword and Shield System.” Along with Japan’s long-standing emphasis on the alliance as a crucial part of its security policy, BMD serves not only maintain the alliance but also strengthen it.
This is all the more crucial because, since the 1990s, Japanese policymakers have been concerned about potential “abandonment” by the United States after the end of the Cold War and the seeming decline in the U.S. geopolitical interests in the Asia-Pacific. As Daniel C. Sneider, an associate director of research for Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, told Asia Times, “the Japanese have this fear of abandonment. It’s deep-seated in Japanese strategic thinking.”
Given this fear, it’s interesting to note that BMD in Japan cannot function without U.S. military capabilities. The United States possesses Early Warning Satellites with the Space-Based Infrared System (SBRIS), operating in earth orbit, which cost more than $11 billion. The SBIRS allows the United States to constantly monitor the Asia-Pacific region, including North Korea, and detect any sign of potential launches. Japan does not yet possess such capabilities and hence receives information from the United States. Japan thus far has developed only ground-based radars, Aegis Destroyers’ radar, and Airborne Early Warning, which are helpful only in tracking missiles after a missile is launched. Thanks to the very short action time after a missile launch, a swift exchange of information to detect and track the missile is crucial, which necessitates both the use of U.S. satellites and enhanced interoperability to a substantial degree.
Military Integration From an Operational Perspective
To ensure effective functionality of BMD and serve the ever-growing necessity of maintaining the security alliance, Japan has made substantial efforts, leading to a seemingly excessive degree of military integration. First, with the revision of the U.S.-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation in 2006, the limitation on the number of annual joint military training and exercises was eliminated, increasing the number of joint exercises. This goes in tandem with widening and deepening consultations and coordination. In terms of BMD, the strategy is now almost jointly planned, consulted, and implemented if necessary.
While the so-called two-plus-two meeting (where the defense and foreign affairs ministers from each country meet) has long a major platform for the alliance, now military official-level meeting occurs regularly. Within the framework of the Alliance Coordination Group (ACG), director general, director, and action officer-level meetings take place for military policy coordination. This possible after Japan established its own National Security Council with a similar structure to the U.S. NSC. The underlying legal framework to share classified information was strengthened through Japan’s Secrecy Law, substantially increasing the punishment for leaking classified information.
There are various consultation forums under the two-plus-two framework — such as the Security Subcommittee, Subcommittee for Defense Cooperation and Japan-U.S. Joint Committee — which are responsible for planning a strategy and its implementation with a particular focus on North Korea and BMD. Now the two militaries even have a physical platform to consult on a daily basis with the establishment of the Bilateral and Joint Operations Coordination Center at Yokota Air Base for the purpose of enhancing interoperability regarding air defense and BMD through sharing information between the headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and the U.S. forces.
There have been a variety of developments and frameworks to enhance interoperability specifically in terms of BMD. Most notably, Japan recently enacted legislation to allow the right of collective self-defense, which includes 10 provisions in the existing legal framework of the JSDF. The most significant part is arguably the addition of the JSDF’s mission to “take necessary measures to destroy ballistic missiles” headed for Japan’s allies as well as the protection of U.S. military equipment such as Navy vessels. These changes suggest Japan’s readiness to address a missile attack directed toward U.S. military bases in Guam and elsewhere. Furthermore, the decision to intercept missile is not unilaterally made by Japan, as the provision states “when the request is made by the armed forces of the United States.” This was also confirmed by former Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.
It is no longer easy to tell the difference between the two militaries regarding BMD, apart from the flag. Japan even repairs and maintains the U.S. military equipment within Japan. At the same time, Japan and the United States jointly develop and use some of the core BMD equipment such as Standard Missile 3 Block IIA (SAM-IIA). Japan recently announced that Aegis destroyers will be equipped with the so-called Cooperative Engagement Capability by 2020, which makes it possible to share information simultaneously with the U.S. sensor and radar network. A Nikkei Asian report says that “CEC will be central to the plans for integrated air-and-missile defense capabilities that the Defense Ministry is drawing up.” This further blurs the distinction between Japan and the U.S. military regarding BMD.
Understanding Japan’s Emphasis on BMD
Japan’s adherence to BMD is seemingly deep-rooted in Japanese policymakers’ minds. Concerned by the absence of any effective defense mechanism against long-range missiles, Japanese policymakers have a history of convincing the Ministry of Finance to squeeze out a substantial sum – even in the midst of the long-term economic recession. The JSDF in general has faced severe difficulty legitimizing itself due to Japan’s pacifist constitution. The JSDF has thus long been the target of budget reductions. Amid a long-term economic recession, the budget battle has continued to this day, as seen in the recent tussling over the new fighter jet project. However, BMD proves an exception to this rule, given Japan’s expected purchase of Aegis Ashore for $5.4 billion. The BMD budget has virtually never been reduced, even when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was the ruling party (2009-2012) and had the principal objective of reducing the government’s expenses.
Another reason for the aggressive pursuit of BMD, at least in the eyes of hawkish lawmakers, is the system’s substantial impact on the constraints on Japanese security. As Christopher, W. Hughes argues, “BMD has challenged four key anti-militaristic principles — the non-exercise of collective self-defense, the non-military use of space, the ban on the export of weapons technology, and strict civilian control of the military.” It goes without saying that developing BMD simultaneously contributes to “burden-sharing” as an effective mechanism to maintain the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The nature of BMD structure between the United States and Japan – namely, Japan’s reliance on the United States – will not change as long as Washington possesses critical components such as early warning satellites. While there was an initiative to develop Japan’s own early warning satellite, only technological research had been conducted with a budget of merely 6 million yen. Given the U.S. defense spending on BMD, its technological progress far exceeds that of Japan, and the chances of Japan possessing even an equivalent level of technology are probably slim to none. This is not only about the budget but also Japan’s absence of technological cooperation with the United States in this area, probably due to the U.S. intention to maintain technological bargaining power.
The Japanese legislation to allow the right of collective self-defense, is tantamount to admitting that any danger for the U.S. military forces around Japan is a danger for Japan’s national security. Too much integration between the U.S.-Japan military, in the end, resulted in the inclusion of the United States as part of Japan’s self-defense mandate.
Looking at the significant development of Japan’s defense capability and efforts to maintain the U.S. alliance, with the cruciality of BMD as a major defense system for Tokyo, there is no turning back now for Japan. This suggests that policymakers in Japan may seek a “threat” to justify the military spending on BMD in the future – whether that is China or Russia, or possibly continues to be North Korea, despite the recent thaw on the peninsula. Japan’s clinging to BMD will have a destabilizing impact on the Asia-Pacific as this behavior unnecessarily agitates China.
U.S.-Japan military relations have been highly integrated and intertwined, meaning that Japan’s security policy risks being in flux depending on U.S. initiatives. This situation is all the more uncertain under the Trump administration. Japan may need to seek a way out of this incremental integration.
Yuki Watai is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. His focus is on the development of Japanese security policy with emphasis on the Constitution and Ballistic Missile Defense.