Japan is debating whether to develop a limited pre-emptive strike capability and buy cruise missiles — ideas that were anathema in the pacifist country before the North Korea missile threat.
With revisions to Japan’s defense plans under way, ruling party hawks are accelerating the moves, while some defense experts say Tokyo should at least consider them.
After being on the backburner in the ruling party for decades, the option of developing pre-emptive strike capability was formally proposed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by his party’s missile defense panel in March, prompting parliamentary debate, although it somewhat lost steam as Abe apparently avoided the divisive topic after seeing support ratings for his government plunge.
North Korea’s test-firing on Tuesday of a missile, which flew over Japan and landed in the northern Pacific Ocean, has intensified fear and reignited the debate.
“Should we possess pre-emptive strike capability?” the Mainichi Shimbun daily asked the following day. “Isn’t it too reckless to jump to discuss a ‘get them before they get you’ approach?”
Japan has a two-step missile defense system.
First, Standard Missile-3 interceptors on Aegis destroyers in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula would shoot down projectiles mid-flight, and if that fails, surface-to-air PAC-3s would intercept them from within a 20km range.
Technically, the setup can handle falling debris or missiles heading toward Japan, but it is not good enough for missiles on a high-lofted trajectory, those with multiple warheads or simultaneous multiple attacks, experts say.
A pre-emptive strike, by Japanese definition, is a step preceding the two-tier defense.
Cruise missiles, such as Tomahawks, fired from Aegis destroyers or fighter jets, would target enemy missiles clearly waiting to be fired or just after blastoff from a North Korean launch site, before they could approach Japan.
Japan’s self-defense-only principle under its war-renouncing constitution prohibits its military from making a first strike and officials discussing a limited pre-emptive strike are calling it a “strike-back” instead.
Whatever the language, it further loosens post-war Japan’s pacifist principle and could strain its relations with China.
There are gray areas as to how far Japan can go and still justify minimum self-defense.
Some experts are skeptical about how it would work.
North Korea’s secretive, diversified and mobile launch system makes it difficult to track down and incapacitate the weapons with Japan’s limited cruise missile attacks, security expert Ken Jimbo at Keio University said.
A pre-emptive capability would also require trillions of dollars to set up spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as training of special units, experts say.
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