The Aegis Ashore anti-missile system in a file photo. Photo: US Defense Department

Follow Japanese defense policy for 30 years and you might develop a permanent smirk. Too often, defense policy seems less about defending Japan and more about pretending to do so, while doing just enough to keep the Americans on the hook for protection.

The latest episode:  the Abe Administration canceling the Aegis Ashore missile defense system last week. The official reasons don’t quite add up. “It costs too much.” Really? $4 billion is peanuts when the Japanese government throws money around. “The local community objects.” But, they always do.  

If costing too much and locals objecting is the standard, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would immediately cancel the Henoko project on Okinawa that is building a replacement for the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station. It costs a lot more than Aegis and is locally opposed – and, unlike the Aegis system, can’t claim to be militarily useful.

But Abe’s real “dog ate my homework” excuse for ending Aegis Ashore is: “The booster rockets might hit civilians on the ground.” The probability? A lot less than the chance of something falling off commercial passenger jets overflying densely populated Tokyo on low-level approach to Haneda Airport. The Japanese government approved such flights a few months ago – despite citizen opposition.

Something strange is going on when Tokyo cancels a project midstream that is part of the joint Japan-US missile defense effort. One smells domestic politics. Maybe Japan’s tabloid weekly magazines will take a look? 

However, to show they aren’t leaving Japan undefended, Abe and Defense Minister Taro Kono mentioned acquiring a “strike capability” to replace the Aegis Ashore system. “Strike capability” is an expression that bubbles up in Japan every now and then.

But ask a Japanese politician or official what “strike capability” means and you will likely hear: “We’ll buy some cruise missiles. Then we punch in GPS coordinates and push the ‘fire’ button and the North Korean missile launcher or [fill-in-the-blank] blows up a minute or two later.”

Maybe in the movies. Not so simple in real life.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government takes a strategic risk by cancelling Aegis Ashore system. Credit: Handout.

You need not just missiles but, for starters, an extensive surveillance and sensor network. That’s a massive, expensive project. And what happens when the North Koreans start building more missiles and hard-t0-target mobile launchers? 

And it’s not just the North Koreans. The Chinese are not exactly friends and have their eyes on Japan’s southern islands. They also have missiles (a lot of them) that can reach Japan. Will Tokyo’s “strike capability” also include the PRC? If so, Beijing won’t be happy.

And where will you put the “strike capability”? If nowhere in Japan wants Aegis Ashore nearby, it’s hard to imagine where a “strike capability” is welcome – given it will become one of the first targets for any strike on Japan.

One might suggest the references to “strike capability” reflect Japanese officialdom’s love affair with silver bullet weapons. Just get some of them and it frightens off Japan’s enemies.

Silver bullets? There have been a few – real and imagined – in recent times: “hypersonic missiles,” F35 stealth fighters, Japan’s “homegrown” 6th generation stealth fighter, two jury-rigged “aircraft carriers.” And does anyone remember “Global Hawk“?

And there is the silver bullet of all silver bullets: nuclear weapons. Japan could probably assemble a few in short order. And once in a while somebody official hints at it – to frighten the Americans as much as anyone else. It may not scare Japan’s enemies (either of them) very much. 

These weapons and systems can have their uses. But Japan gives little apparent thought for how they fit into a broader, coherent defense scheme.

Here’s a way to consider Tokyo’s haphazard thinking: A car is a varied collection of parts, big and small, that function as a whole – and each plays a particular and necessary role.

The same goes for a nation’s defense. Yet the government of Japan does the equivalent of buying an engine, windshield wipers, a steering wheel, and three tires – and saying it has a car. Meanwhile, Japan knows the Americans have a real car, should they need a ride to the shopping mall.

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

And there is usually an implicit threat when Japan talks of “strike capability” or otherwise going it alone. The hidden meaning: “If you Americans tell us do more to defend ourselves (or if Trump asks for more money) in order to help you … well … we might have to buy a strike capability … and then you’ll be sorry! And who knows what we might do?”

And there is more that’s implied: “You don’t even appreciate us buying expensive, make that ‘too expensive’ weapons from you?”

It’s like an angry spouse feeling unappreciated and threatening to move out, get his own place and buy a gun. Not exactly a marriage built on bedrock. Now you might understand the smirk.

After canceling Aegis Ashore, and hinting at a “strike capability,” Abe also promised to revisit Japan’s national security strategy later in the summer. That’s an old standby.

If Japan’s ruling class needs more than ten minutes to figure out how to defend Japan, God help them.  It’s not complicated:

Properly fund, man, and equip a balanced, well-trained military capable of joint operations – and fully linked with US forces. Do this and friends and foes alike will take Japan (and the Quad) more seriously.  Otherwise, might as well start studying Mandarin.

Ironically, the Japanese public (which still reads newspapers) has a much better sense of national security than the average lawmaker or bureaucrat.

If the Japanese officials systematically thought through the country’s defense requirements (or had somebody knowledgeable do it for them) and explained it all to the public, the amount of popular support would surprise Tokyo.     

Now let me be clear, the problem is not the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF). Get to know them and one realizes the jieikan (JSDF members) are Japan’s finest citizens and are playing a bad hand the best they can.

And there are Japanese politicians and officials who know exactly what the problems are and what needs to be done. But the people who call the shots in Japan’s ruling political and official classes won’t listen. They should.

If I weren’t an adult I would be crying, not smirking.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.