A US Tomahawk cruise missile erupts from the sea. Photo: Raytheon

SEOUL – Will a fleet of glistening missiles, emblazoned with the emblem of the rising sun, soon line Asia’s eastern horizon?

It is looking increasingly likely. The two parties that make up Japan’s ruling coalition reached an agreement on December 2 on the acquisition of a missile-based “counterstrike capability,” able to strike targets in threatening enemy countries.

The details behind this capability are expected to be spelled out in three documents, including the National Security Strategy, to be issued by the end of the year.

With the parties on the same page, debate is expected to move to the Diet. There, the combination of the ruling coalition and supportive minority right-wing parties, as well as opinion polls that find Japanese public support a more robust military stance, indicate the plan will become reality.

Yet while the world’s third-largest economy can certainly afford to buy hardware by the truckload, background questions hang over the software.

Can Japanese politicians – a breed not generally noted for bold, split-second decisions – craft a feasible usage doctrine? Does Japan have the supportive assets in place – such as the constellation of reconnaissance satellites trained upon potential enemies – to grant its missile “fist” the necessary “eyes, ears and brain”?

Beyond the pure domestic environment: How will this independent deterrent be synchronized with the assets maintained by, and the doctrine governing the use of, US weapons in Japan and the wider region?

And in a region overshadowed by nuclear-armed China, North Korea and Russia, is a fleet of conventionally armed missiles – there are no calls to give them nuclear warheads – a credible deterrent anyway?

If not, then Tokyo, for all its talk of independent capabilities, will continue to be the victim of a strategic irony – relying for its ultimate defense on the nuclear arsenal of the nation that dropped two atomic weapons on Japanese cities.

Flag of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, which is likely to be the force that will field the mooted Tomahawk armory. Photo: YouTube

Peace politics and user doctrine

The Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito – the Buddhist body that is sometimes seen as a brake on the LDP’s hardline hawks – synchronized their positions on the acquisition of a “counterstrike” missile force last week.

Komeito won out on the official nomenclature. While the LDP preferred the term “enemy base attack capability,” it will be dubbed a “counterstrike” capability, rather than a “pre-emptive strike” capability.

Of course, once acquired and stood up, the missiles can be used for either purpose. That fact is reflected in the considerable fog in Japanese media over whether the assets should be described as “counter” or “pre-emptive.”

Ahead of the publication of detailed documentation in the coming weeks, strategic ambiguity – if not plain old-fashioned ambiguity – is firmly in place.

The ruling bloc left some ambiguity regarding the conditions, targets and timing for counterattacks, which observers said could raise fears that Japan may attack countries arbitrarily, possibly destabilizing regional security,” Kyodo News editorialized.

The parties claim they have finessed the tricky question of Article 9 of Japan’s so-called “Peace Constitution.” Keiichi Ishii, secretary general of Komeito, said, according to Kyodo, that Japan would “maintain the exclusively self-defense posture of the (war-renouncing) Article 9 of the constitution, even after Japan has a counterstrike capability.”

Ishii pointed to the need for a counterstrike capability due to the rising security threats posed by North Korea and China.

Both countries have test-fired ballistic missiles in Japan’s vicinity. North Korean has even test-fired ballistic missiles that have flown through the atmosphere over Japan, and a highly advanced, sub-atmosphere maneuverable ballistic missile.

In 2020, Japan – to widespread surprise – abandoned plans to adopt a US-based Aegis Ashore defensive system. Aegis, designed to intercept missiles in near space, is unable to counter maneuverable ballistics on sub-atmospheric flight paths. These weapons, originally pioneered by Russia, and are also possessed by China and North Korea.

Hence the need for another solution – notably the counterstrike capability that became a subject of heated political/military discussions immediately after the Aegis decision was made.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is florid on defense, repeatedly stating that Japan must raise its spend, customarily 1% of GDP, to the NATO standard of 2%. In November, Kishida fleshed out the plan, telling defense and finance officials that the rise to that percentage is to come in fiscal year 2027.

That would enable the acquisition of a wide range of new toys, including the cruise missiles that are expected to be the centerpiece of the “counterstrike” capability. But not everybody is behind it.

A lengthy editorial in the influential left-wing Asahi newspaper last week warned that Kishida “has not offered any sufficient and convincing explanation about the policy shift the government is planning to make. The administration must not be allowed to make a headlong rush into the decision.”

Certainly, the devil is in the details. Questions are already being raised about the central issue of what kind of doctrine would govern the armory’s use.

The mooted capability “can be used not just to stage a reprisal attack against an enemy but also in response to an enemy’s move to ‘embark on’ an attack on Japan, according to the government,” warned the Asahi. “But it would be very difficult to ascertain that an enemy is in the process of attacking Japan. Such a situation could prompt Japan to take an action that is seen as a pre-emptive strike in violation of international law.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida rides on a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Type 10 tank during a review at JGSDF Camp Asaka in Tokyo on November 27, 2021. Photo: JiJi

Japan’s public gets the vapors

These issues are likely to be strongly taken up by Japan’s opposition. However, the ruling coalition holds a majority in both the upper and lower houses of the Diet, and is likely to have the support to two minor right-wing parties which are florid on defense. Indeed, politicians favoring revising Japan’s pacifist constitution now hold two-thirds majorities in both houses.

Moreover, Article 9 of the constitution was successfully “reinterpreted” in 2014 to encompass collective defense, without facing massive public pushback. Since then, a marine brigade has been stood up and two helicopter destroyers have been converted into light aircraft carriers – assets Japan has not possessed since 1945 – to minimal controversy.

And broader indicators suggest that Kishida is pushing on an open door.

A November poll found that 76% of Japanese now fear being attacked by a foreign nation. These fears are being stoked by global developments: The same poll found that 88% of persons were taking an interest in the Ukraine conflict, and 79% are concerned about a Taiwan Strait crisis.

An influential element within Japanese society that has excellent reasons to maintain good relations with China – Japan’s biggest trade partner – is the business community. Yet even within Japan Inc, 81% of respondents support the defense spending rise, according to an October corporate poll.

Missile acquisition, target acquisition

A wide spectrum of opinion exists on Japan’s defense policy.

“Since 1956, the government has maintained that Japan can strike missile bases in enemy territory in self-defense only when there is no other means,” the Asahi stated. “But Japan has not made a move to acquire such capabilities partly because of practical difficulties.”

One defense expert disagrees, saying that a de facto Japanese counterstrike capability already exists.

According to Tokyo-based Lance Gatling, principal of Nexial Research, Tokyo operates a fleet of F-15 fighter-bombers and – crucially – GPS-guided JDAM precision munition kits that precisionize their bombs. These assets are backed by Japanese electronic-warfare jamming systems and in-flight refueling aircraft that could extend the range of any strike force. 

Viewed through this lens, the acquisition of a missile force is simply a continuation of an under-publicized, but extant, policy that is now becoming clearer. In November, officials of Japan’s Ministry of Defense told specialist publication Janes that Japan is mulling acquiring some 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US.

The Raytheon product can hit moving targets and deliver payloads to stationary targets with extreme accuracy. According to Janes, the latest iterations of the missile can fly 2,500 kilometers, putting targets within China, North Korea and Russian comfortably in range. Recent variants integrate a datalink to enable the switching of targets mid-flight and can loiter for “a prolonged duration.”

Currently, the missile is used only by the armed forces of the US and its close ally the UK, but Gatling, formerly a Japan-based US Army officer specializing in bilateral operations, does not think Japanese officials were speaking without having laid the necessary groundwork.

Advanced arms such as the Tomahawk require multiple permissions from various organizations before they can be acquired. “The Japanese would not leak that they are talking about buying Tomahawks if they thought they would be rejected as there would be a huge loss of face,” Gatling said. “I believe that they are sending up trial balloons to buy this capability.”

In terms of lead time, Gatling guessed that once a political decision is made, the missiles would take well over a year before going operational.

“They would have to modify the launchers, train and do some test firings, and they would probably want to put a Japanese booster on it, or license it,” he said. “It is all part of a giant circus.”

Gatling also believes that Japanese defense planners have been thinking through the acquisition of a cruise-missile capability before the Aegis Ashore buy was nullified.

Even so, Tomahawks are likely to be an “interim solution,” he said, citing intense speculation about whether a longer-term solution might be a home-grown, or possibly hybrid, missile.

In terms of gathering real-time target intelligence, Gatling believes Japan is already well advanced.

“They have intelligence-gathering satellites and they buy a lot of commercial satellite imagery – the Japanese Ministry of Defense was one of the primary customers for [satellite company] Space Imaging,” Gatling said.

Moreover, the number of professional satellite imaging analysts in Japan has climbed from “160 to around 1,000 over the last several years,” he said.

“They have got quite a sophisticated air defense and surveillance system that is satellite-enabled and there are phased-array radars deployed to detect ballistic missile launches,” added Alex Neill, an independent, Singapore-based security consultant. “And over the last 10 years, there has been a lot of discussion about deploying sophisticated radar detection capabilities further down the Ryukyu island chain.”

A missile is fired from a multiple launch rocket system in this image released by North Korea on March 22, 2020. Photo: KCNA

With North Korea currently engaged in its busiest-ever year of missile testing, reams of target data are likely being collated.

“The North Koreans are probably exercising their command-and-control networks to launch different types of missiles from different locations,” Gatling said. “The essential elements of information are, ‘What is it, can we intercept it, can we jam it, can we blow it up, what are their orders?’ You set up plans to dismantle this capability.”

The Japanese capability is being talked up as an independent one. This may well be informed by recent trends in Washington politics.

US allies worldwide shuddered at the Donald Trump administration’s cavalier attitude toward allies and alliances, raising quiet fears in allied capitals that Washington might not ride to their defense in a crisis.

Though the Joe Biden administration worked to quell these concerns, and has remained firm on the defense of Ukraine, its humiliating pullout from Afghanistan raised further fears about America’s lack of steel.

These issues are almost certainly, to a greater or lesser degree, behind Tokyo’s mooted new independent capabilities. Yet Japan, which shares an alliance with the United States, and which has 50,000 GIs based on its soil, is not operating in a vacuum.

The big unasked question

“Given that the US is networked in with, for example, Japan’s Aegis destroyers, it stands to reason that it would network with this new or enhanced capability,” Neill said. “And missile defense and satellite capabilities are crucially important, so designing an interface is fundamentally important.”

This points to two issues. The US will likely be happy to sell expensive arms and other assets to close ally Japan. And with US forces facing budget, manpower and – since Ukraine – equipment, overstretch, Washington supports its allies as they up-gun.

This points to the biggest question hanging over the Tomahawk acquisition: the payload.

Gatling notes that Japan has signed international commitments against use of cluster munitions, making the only feasible warhead old-fashioned high explosive. In a region where China, North Korea and Russia all field nuclear forces, a high-explosive warhead looks like a peashooter against a howitzer.

Japan, however, maintains a stockpile of weaponizable plutonium that could be converted at speed. “I have heard that Japan needs five minutes and a screwdriver and they have got a nuclear capability,” said Neill. “But there are fundamental constitutional constraints.”

Gatling agrees. On the engineering side, he cites a common estimate that it would take 18 months for Japan to obtain a nose-to-tail nuclear deterrent – and crises have a habit of eventuating in far shorter time frames than that. But asked whether Tokyo would, having acquired the delivery capability, go critical in order to reach parity with the neighborhood competitors, Gatling answered, “I find it highly unlikely.”

This points to the limit of the independent counterstrike capability.

“What you have with counterstrike is a deterrent capability,” he said. “Having that is telling the North Koreans or maybe the Chinese that, ‘We are not going to sit here and be struck, we may choose to strike your strike force.’”

The fact that potential enemies will have to weigh the will of both Tokyo and Washington, rather than simply the latter, presents a complicating factor for those considering provocations against Japan. Regardless, Tokyo will continue to lean on the US for defense against the ultimate weapon – and as long as US forces are based in Japan, US commitment should not wobble in the face of that threat.  

“They have the US nuclear umbrella,” Gatling said. “And the US will not allow 50,000 US troops to be incinerated.”

Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul

Once the victim of US nuclear weapons, Japan now relies upon them for its strategic defense. Photo: Wikimedia Commons