Interviewed by Daizo Teramoto and Taketsugu Sato, senior staff writer
The government canceled the plan to deploy land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense platforms in June. In addition to discussions on reconfiguring Japan’s missile defense plans, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is now considering giving the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) the capability to attack enemy bases. Former defense minister Takeshi Iwaya remains unconvinced, however. He explained to Asahi Shimbun the reasons for his cautious view.
Arguing about technological aspects might obscure the big picture
Asahi Shimbun: You were cautious at the LDP meeting where the capability to attack enemy bases was discussed. You said there was a leap of logic.
Iwaya: We first need to discuss how to fill the gap in our missile defense that was created by the cancellation of Aegis Ashore. Next we must explore how to address not only North Korean missiles, but also the diverse threats from the sky, such as cruise missiles and drones. Then after that we should discuss the issue of Japan-U.S. division of labor, or the “sword and shield,” before considering the capability to attack enemy bases.
The attack capability was discussed and the answer was found 64 years ago. The Hatoyama administration at the time stated that it was possible, under the Japanese Constitution, for us to take absolutely necessary, minimum measures under circumstances where there is no other means to prevent enemy attacks on us. This is the absolute limit set by our Constitution. Transforming the SDF into something offensive in nature in the hope of realizing deterrence is not permissible under the Constitution, as it falls totally outside of the principle of exclusive defense.
Asahi Shimbun: There are some who say Japan will not be able to defend itself in the event of a saturation attack by North Korea in which a large number of missiles is simultaneously launched.
Iwaya: The current discussion should not get sidetracked by talk of events that are more likely to occur in movies and comic books. Challenging the Japan-U.S. Alliance in earnest would be a suicidal move, and highly unlikely. There is a serious danger in getting carried away and losing our heads.
Asahi Shimbun: There are others who argue that a preemptive attack before a missile is launched would be more effective.
Iwaya: We are dealing with solid fuel missiles launched from mobile launchers. We won’t know where the missiles are coming from or where they are headed. Attacking before we can determine those places will be in violation of international law.
Asahi Shimbun: However, the LDP made a proposal in the past for the government to consider acquiring the capability to attack enemy bases.
Iwaya: We made the proposal (in 2013) when I was the chairman of the LDP’s Research Commission on National Security. It was a kind of “warning” and the proposal had a point. I also received an LDP proposal when I was the defense minister, but I had no intention of implementing them. I never issued an instruction to study feasibility either.
Asahi Shimbun: Do you not have any intention of implementing the proposals to this day?
Iwaya: What is the merit of declaring your intention if you mean to implement it? There are latent threats of missile attacks from China and Russia. By declaring Japan’s intention to establish a system to attack enemy bases, we could create extreme tension in the Far East. That could result in an escalation of the arms race.
Asahi Shimbun: It looks like more members of the LDP support the attack capability.
Iwaya: Are you sure? If you asked a larger group, I don’t think that would necessarily be true. When you discuss only the military aspects, we tend to fall into the trap of concentrating on the details of various military technologies. That, I believe, could make us lose sight of the picture.
Asahi Shimbun: When you were the defense minister, the issue of boosters emerged, which later became the reason for the Aegis Ashore cancellation.
Iwaya: We trusted people who said that the U.S. side explained that the boosters could be controlled. We explained to the local government accordingly. Perhaps we were too hasty. We probably could have taken more time to select the candidate sites from a wider range of locations.
Asahi Shimbun: In your opinion, what is the best alternative to the Aegis Ashore system?
Iwaya: I think increasing the number of Aegis vessels would be the first thing to do. I believe ten or so such vessels could carry out both missile defense and their original duties.
Takeshi Iwaya, 62, is an eight-term Lower House member from Oita 3rd district and a member of the Aso faction. After serving as Parliamentary Secretary for Defense, State Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Chairman of LDP Research Commission on National Security, he served as Minister of Defense from 2018 to 2019.