The land-based Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex in Kauai, Hawaii. Photo: US Missile Defense Agency via Reuters

Ballistic missile defense system Aegis Ashore is not a “magic bullet” for Japan’s defense requirements, and if the island nation seeks adequate defensive measures, it needs to upgrade the overall capability of its armed forces, two overseas experts noted in a briefing on March 26.

The experts – Lance Gatling, president of Nexial Research, an aerospace and defense consulting firm, and retired US Marine Colonel Grant Newsham, from the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies – made the points in a meeting at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo.

Tokyo recently announced plans to purchase two Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems from the US for nearly $1 billion each, for deployment in Japan. These systems are able to engage high-speed, long-range missiles “on the way up or the way down,” Gatling said, describing them as “unsinkable destroyers” – a reference to standard Aegis systems which are now deployed aboard destroyers.

The land-based system has a 24-hour capability and offers the benefit of not needing to deploy from a port before firing, as Aegis afloat systems must avoid harming civilians and damaging nearby property. A further advantage is that only two Aegis Ashore sites offer coverage for all of Japan – compared with the current ship-based systems, which are much more limited.

As for the two US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries recently deployed in South Korea, Gatling explained that Japan’s long geography, which stretches some 2,500 kilometers from northern Hokkaido to Okinawa, would require “scores of THAAD batteries.”

A devilishly tricky operation

Gatling also described the complexity of missile intercept operations and the overlooked importance of Aegis and THAAD radar coverage of Northeast Asia. Radar coverage offers “cuing” or early warning to US and Japanese missile defenses, so they can know where a missile is headed and prepare to intercept it – a devilishly tricky operation.

The recent, much-reported failure of an Aegis Ashore test in Hawaii was not unexpected owing to the complexity of the test – which included “cuing” from radar in another location, Gatling said. Moreover, failures are part of the development process.

The Aegis system’s newest missile, the SM-3 Block IIA, is a huge improvement over the current SM-3 Block IA/B missiles in terms of both speed – it’s twice as fast – and range, 1500km versus 500km, Gatling said. In fact, the missile outdistances existing radars, which are being upgraded. This presents the Japanese government with a choice of whether to buy missiles now or wait for the upgraded version to become available.

In either case, it is expensive: reportedly $30 million a missile. The pricey missiles represent “parallel development,” with Japanese and American companies sharing production, though it is the American prime contractor which puts the finished missile together.

Turning to the threat North Korea poses to the United States rather than simply Japan, Gatling doubted whether North Korea has a viable re-entry vehicle yet for its intercontinental ballistic missiles. He noted that if Pyongyang begins regular, repeated tests into announced parts of the Pacific Ocean – as compared with “somewhere in the Pacific” – it would be a sign they are getting close to that capability.

A tightly meshed defense

Addressing the issue of how Aegis Ashore would fare against 20 incoming missiles, Gatling said the system is not intended to handle a “swarm”; the ground-based missile now under development is being designed with that capability as its priority.

Rather, Aegis, while reliably intercepting single missiles, is also about deterrence, placing doubt in the mind of an enemy as to whether they should “push the button.” Complementary missile defense systems – such as Patriot, THAAD and Aegis, all with different capabilities – provide defense in depth, he explained.

Newsham noted that proper assessment of Aegis Ashore’s effectiveness requires a broader perspective of the risks that Japan faces and what any single weapons system can provide – not just against North Korean ballistic missiles. Japan’s defense should be viewed as a “mesh” of complementary capabilities, and that Aegis Ashore, even if 100% effective, was only one layer in that.

Aegis Ashore typifies the Japanese government’s problematic preference for “silver bullet” weapons systems, Newsham said – weapons that officials believe will solve whatever the problem of the moment is. This phenomenon has been seen in the past with Global Hawk, cruise missiles and most recently, F35 stealth fighters that are expected to sweep Japan’s skies clear of enemy aircraft.

Gatling added that Japanese procurement officials can sometimes think that once a weapon system is purchased, there is no need to do anything more for years. But, he said, ballistic-missile-defense systems require constant and costly upgrades and maintenance.

Defense problems: software, not hardware

Japan’s broader defense problems are not hardware related. It’s the nation’s lack of a comprehensive, coherent national threat assessment system on which defense strategy, capability development and equipment procurement can be based, Newsham said. Instead, Tokyo too often buys hardware then tries to figure out how to employ it, rather than first figuring out why it needs a particular piece of equipment or system.

Yet while some issues – such as Japan’s shortages of war stocks and ammunition – can be solved with purchases, Newsham noted that the Japan Self-Defense Force’s operational shortcomings cannot. These include lack of inter-service joint capabilities, a shortage of training opportunities and personnel shortfalls.

Newsham noted that while expensive the Japanese defense budget has been underfunded for decades. Asked how much Japan should spend, he suggested 10% increases annually for at least the next five years.

When asked what three pieces of equipment Japan should prioritize, he suggested instead of spending resources on improving salaries and living conditions, making service in the JSDF a respected profession, while funding adequate training opportunities should be at the top of the list. Doing that would do much to improve Japan’s overall defense capability, which now has only some excellent niche capabilities.

The former Marine was not entirely pessimistic. Looking back only five years, he said it was striking how freely and seriously defense was being discussed in Japan today, and stressed that ballistic missile defense was a bright spot that fostered genuine cooperation between the Japanese Navy and Air Force, as well as with the US Navy and Air Force.

Aegis Ashore symbolized improvements and future opportunities for JSDF-US cooperation and interoperability. And the same issue applied domestically: Assigning the Ground Self Defense Force to operate Aegis Ashore sites might be awkward at the start, but it would be a welcome opportunity for the three Japanese services – ground, air and maritime – to develop real coordination.