By Kosaka Tetsuro, Nikkei senior staff writer
The threat posed by Chinese and North Korean missiles is increasing. There are new types of missiles that are difficult to intercept and attack methods in which many missiles are launched at once. Japan is entering a preparatory period for deploying multilayered defense against missile attacks and in this way protecting the lives of its people.
Japan’s response to missile threats so far can be summarized “as one-sided and ad hoc, even though the situation has worsened, and as generally less concerned with protecting people’s lives.” North Korea threatened Japan, the U.S., and South Korea between 2016 and 2018 by test-launching many ballistic missiles.
North Korea has tested new attack methods such as the “saturation attack” that fires many missiles targeting one location, and the “lofted launch” which raises the missile’s re-entry speed by increasing the launch altitude. Traditional missile defense facilities, such as the SDF’s surface-to-air missile Patriot missile (PAC3) which intercepts missiles flying into Japan, have become virtually obsolete as a result.
Difficulties in interception of missiles acknowledged
Recently, China and North Korea have begun to flaunt their possession of hypersonic missiles and missiles that follow irregular orbits. Irregular-orbit missiles make interception difficult by falling first, then rising in altitude. The Japanese government has finally recognized that it is hard to intercept such missiles, and it has started to discuss “strikes on enemy bases” which would neutralize missiles before they are launched.
The government has not changed its posture of tackling only one side of the issue, however. According to former Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) officer Kaneda Hideaki, who is knowledgeable about missile defense issues, missile defense essentially refers to a posture which mobilizes the following four elements:
(1) “Nuclear deterrence” to stop an attack by displaying an ability to retaliate by the same means in the case of a nuclear attack; (2) “striking enemy bases” when an attack is imminent; (3) “interception” of missiles in flight; and (4) “protection of people,” such as evacuation activities and the development of evacuation sites to protect people from missiles that could not be intercepted. The U.S. and Israel have been working on all four aspects in parallel since the Cold War era.
Japan’s ruling and opposition parties have generally been cautious and vague about efforts regarding strikes on enemy bases. Even if the government makes a decision on this issue, a considerable amount of time will be needed for the SDF to procure the necessary equipment, train personnel, and otherwise acquire all the skills needed to carry out operations.
“Nuclear umbrella” has been shaken
Missile evacuation drills were held by some local governments between the spring of 2017 and the spring of 2018. Drills were suspended the U.S. and North Korea decided to hold a summit meeting in June 2018. No resumption of training is in sight, although the U.S.-North Korea negotiations concluded without producing concrete results and North Korea continues to enhance its nuclear weapon capabilities.
The effectiveness of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” is also under threat. A nuclear attack on Japan was to be deterred through the threat of a U.S. military retaliation using nuclear weapons. In addition to China and Russia, even North Korea is nearing possession of nuclear ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland. There are concerns that the U.S. will not move to retaliate even if Japan comes under nuclear attack because the U.S. is afraid that the enemy will stage a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland.
[Japan’s situation] in terms of the four elements of missile defense mentioned above can be summarized as: (1) nuclear deterrence is shaky; (2) strikes against enemy bases cannot be executed; (3) interception is currently difficult; and (4) protection of citizens is overlooked. It seems particularly necessary to deem enemy base attack capabilities as an issue that affects the survival of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
In the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. military would make a dangerous offensive operation to destroy the mobile carriers and submarines from which North Korea would launch missiles. If Japan were to leave all these operations to the U.S. military, would the Japan-U.S. alliance survive the strain?
Regarding the protection of the people, it will be necessary to gradually resume evacuation drills around major SDF and U.S. military bases in Japan and in major metropolitan areas. The Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications was preparing to designate as evacuation sites private facilities with sturdy underground spaces in addition to local government facilities, before drills were suspended in the spring of 2018.
New technologies can resolve interception issue. A method called “railgun” uses a powerful laser or superconductivity to shoot bullets at high speed. Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Electric, and Japan Steel Works already have the core technologies for this method.