By Issei Tanaka, staff writer
As discussions on the capability to attack enemy bases progress in the government and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), interest is growing in the possibility of deploying Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles. The U.S.-manufactured Tomahawks are currently only sold to the UK. When they are equipped with conventional warheads, Tomahawks are capable of covering distances of more than 1,300 km, bringing North Korea and China within range. Advocates of deploying the missiles argue that they will provide improved deterrence against North Korea and China, both of which possess large numbers of missiles that are capable of reaching Japan.
In the wake of the cancellation of the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system, the LDP launched a project team (chaired by former defense minister Itsunori Onodera) in late June to explore alternative types of missile defense. During the team’s closed-door meetings, many participants have voiced support for acquiring the capability to attack enemy bases, arguing that defensive measures alone will not be sufficient for blocking incoming missile attacks. Some former defense ministers, as well as influential Diet members who are well-versed in defense issues, have called for the introduction of the Tomahawk missiles as “one option,” in the words of former defense minister Gen Nakatani.
According to a MOD source, Tomahawks could be mounted on Maritime Self-Defense Force’s destroyers after minor retrofits to their canisters. If a missile were launched from a destroyer or Aegis vessel in the Sea of Japan, all of North Korea would be within range. If it were fired from the East China Sea, certain areas of China would fall within range.
The source added that there would be a strategic advantage to deploying Tomahawk cruise missiles on MSDF ships because the enemy would not be able to identify ships that are carrying the missiles. “We would be able to deter others by just possessing the Tomahawks that enable us to launch counterattacks without declaring that we possess the capabilities,” he said.
The Ministry of Defense has already decided to purchase cruise missiles manufactured overseas with a range of approximately 500-900 km that are mainly carried by fighter jets. However, operation in the vicinity of enemy airspace poses risks to the fighters. “Aegis ships can launch the missiles at a safe distance from enemy bases,” former state secretary for foreign affairs Masahisa Sato pointed out on July 9 during an Upper House Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting. He also stressed the advantage of “smooth” operational coordination between the Tomahawk missile system and the U.S. Navy in detecting enemy missile launches and tracking.
The threats posed by Japan’s neighbors are growing. North Korea possesses several hundred ballistic missiles that are capable of reaching Japan. It is also improving its ability to execute saturation attacks, in which a large number of missiles are launched almost simultaneously to overwhelm the other country’s defense. China has deployed approximately 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, many of which are presumed to be capable of targeting Japan.
It will take several years at minimum for Japan to domestically develop cruise missiles with these capabilities. According to a government source, the U.S. had once conveyed its intention “not to sell Tomahawks” to Japan during unofficial negotiations held around 2013. However, some Japanese officials strongly believe that the U.S. government will allow the the sale of Tomahawks because of the relationship of trust between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It is possible, these officials say, that the purchase price would be as low as one-tenth of the SM-3 system currently mounted on Aegis ships to counter incoming ballistic missiles.