The Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex at the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii, conducts a flight test. Photo: US Defense Department

In a major reversal of an unpopular multibillion-dollar missile defense system provided by the United States, Japan has decided it’s simply not worth it.

Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono told reporters that he decided to “stop the deployment process” of the Aegis Ashore systems after it was found that a hardware redesign is needed to ensure that rocket debris doesn’t endanger residents near the facilities, and that such work would be too time consuming and costly, China Daily reported.

“Considering the cost and time it would require, I had no choice but judge that pursuing the plan is not logical,” Kono said.

The Japanese government decided in 2017 to deploy two Aegis Ashore batteries to bolster the country’s current defenses consisting of Aegis-equipped destroyers at sea and Patriot missiles on land, China Daily reported.

The two Aegis Ashore units, to be based in Yamaguchi Prefecture in the south and in Akita Prefecture in the north, were supposed to cover the whole of Japan and be capable of intercepting ballistic missiles.

With an advanced radar system and SM-3 interceptor missiles, they were intended to be part of Japan’s three-layer missile defense, alongside the Aegis destroyers and the land-based PAC-3 interceptor system, China Daily reported.

However, the deployment of Aegis Ashore had faced a series of setbacks from the outset, including questions on site selections and upward revisions on cost estimates last put at 450 billion yen (US$4.1 billion) for their 30-year operation and maintenance. Safety issues for communities in the two prefectures added to the concerns.

“Meanwhile, there are also concerns in Japan that the deployment was for intercepting long-range missiles targeting the US military in Guam or Hawaii, rather than for Japan’s self-defense,” said Yu Qiang, a researcher of Japan studies at the University of International Relations in Beijing.

“In those circumstances, the deployment would interfere with the country’s war-renouncing constitution.”

Local leaders hailed the suspension of the project, with Akita Governor Norihisa Satake saying the government’s judgment was “sensible.” Tsugumasa Muraoka, the governor of Yamaguchi Prefecture, said: “I think it’s the right decision and it reflects the opinion in the local communities.”

According to Japan Times, the United States is “working very closely” with Japan to “resolve concerns and issues,” Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said during a virtual defense conference.

David Helvey, acting assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said in a conference call: “We understand that the government of Japan is reviewing some technical aspects of the program to determine a more cost-effective alternative.”

“We want to maintain those communications with the government of Japan and work with them to find the right way forward to ensure that we’re continuing to work closely with them on missile defense,” Helvey said.

Japan “remains a model partner for us in missile defense,” he added.

According to Kono, Japan and the United States have signed a contract worth around ¥180 billion (US$1.7 billion) for the anti-missile system, of which ¥12 billion has already been paid by Japan. Future payments and penalty charges are likely to become an issue hereafter.