A Tomahawk cruise missile is launched from aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. Japan is currently considering developing an upgraded version of the missile. Photo:AFP/Eric Garst

Japan’s military usually uses off-the-shelf US military hardware like F-15 fighters and Aegis missiles. But this is changing in the face of an escalating military threat from North Korea.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported earlier this week that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is mulling developing a stealthy, specialized Japanese cruise missile that can hit ground targets. The weapon would be a much-improved version of the US Tomahawk cruise missile.

If developed, the made-in-Japan missile would help retake remote islands that have been occupied by China or other potential foes. But the weapon will also be designed to hit military bases in North Korea.

The Tomahawk is a long-range subsonic cruise missile used by the US Navy in ship and submarine-based land-attack operations. The new Japanese missile is expected to have improvements over the Tomahawk such as a radar-evading stealth shape and the ability to change course in mid-flight.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force already uses the US version of the Tomahawk.

Antiship missiles too

The land-attack missile is expected to be developed under a Japanese program to build indigenous antiship missiles.

The Yomiuri says Japan’s Defense Ministry plans to begins researching the antiship missile component of its program from fiscal 2018. It will then decide whether to add land-attack capabilities. If it happens, the newspaper says it will be the first time that Japan undertakes full-scale production of land-attack cruise missiles.

Defense planners have asked for ¥7.7 billion in the ministry’s budget request for fiscal 2018 to develop the new antiship guided missile.

While controversy still surrounds Japan’s ability to undertake offensive military operations against enemies like North Korea under the nation’s pacifist constitution, analysts believe fewer legal obstacles exist in developing “defensive” weapons systems. Cruise missiles can be interpreted as being defensive if employed to defend small outlying islands as in the case of territorial disputes with China.

Abe’s government and members of his Liberal Democratic Party argue that Japan should have the right to attack North Korean military bases because of a nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang.