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Pre-emptive Strike Capability: Shifting Winds in Japan?

Group Captain Atul Pant is a serving member of the Indian Air Force. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 24, 2020

    The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has indicated a fresh calculus on defence and a move towards building up more deterrence in the form of pre-emptive capability. 1 With an almost certainty of it fuelling a regional arms race, the proposition is particularly difficult as its compatibility with the war renouncing Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution will always be questionable. The proposition will also be expensive as it would require aircraft and, more importantly, missile-based strike capability comprising a varied arsenal of missiles, causing the traditionally one per cent GDP constraint on defence spending to be violated which Prime Minister Abe reportedly is willing to negotiate.2

    The pacifists have for long successfully resisted the idea of any pre-emptive offensive doctrine for Japan, citing the spirit of Article 9. Acquiring nuclear weapons or any weapon of mass destruction (WMD) has never been on the cards. A public poll recently conducted by The Japan Times shows that the majority of the people remain opposed to the idea with 69 per cent voting against any amendment to the war renouncing Article 9 of the constitution.3

    It may be noted that Japan had renounced war as a means of settling disputes after the end of World War-II. This conviction has since been strongly held and ingrained in Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution:

    Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

    In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.4

    Post World War-II, the island nation of Japan has followed a spear and shield understanding with the United States (US) for its external defence, wherein the Japanese Self-Defence Forces would act as the shield defending against or blunting the aggression and the US would provide the punitive offensive element against the aggressors to subvert the threat completely or take it to its logical conclusion. The US has permanently stationed approximately 54,000 troops and several weapon systems, including naval and airforce components, in Japan pursuant to the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960. Both nations observe the status of forces agreement for the US Forces stationed in Japan.

    Besides, the US has also provided a layered ballistic missile shield comprising ship-based Aegis missile system (for exo-atmospheric mid-course interception of incoming ballistic missiles) and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) land-based missile system (for their short-range interception). Further augmentation to the ballistic missile shield with Aegis Ashore missile system (land-based version of the Aegis missile system) has been on the cards with increasing missile threat. Japan has already ordered US$ 1.7 billion worth of missiles from the US. The cost of maintaining the US forces and the missile system is borne by both countries; however, the Japanese share has been increasing over the years.

    Since the 1990s, there has been a growing debate in Japan about the efficacy of the abovementioned security arrangement with the US, particularly in view of increased proliferation and blatant development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles by its traditional rivals, North Korea and China. Japan also has some conflict of interest with Russia over territorial issues and the relations between them are not all that cordial with the occasional show of military overtures and a separate mention of the fact in Japan’s defence white paper of 2020.5

    One of the main causes of concern for Japan has been the rising belligerence, assertiveness, and confrontational attitude of China over East China Sea islands (claimed by both the nations). China also often subtly brandishes its missile arsenal of which it is estimated to have sizeable numbers in intermediate-range categories.  Reconstitution of the 2nd Artillery Brigade of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a separate force named PLA Rocket Force (missile force) indicates China’s intention to further bolster its missile capabilities.

    Similarly, the increasing number of missile tests under the current North Korean regime has also added to Japan’s security concerns. The enhanced capability of the North Korean missiles makes early detection and interception more difficult, thereby posing new challenges for information gathering, early warning, and interception preparedness of Japan.6 The ballistic trajectory in two of such tests in 2017 passed over the islands of Japan with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, warning of more such tests in near future,7 forcing Japan to consider reviewing its defence doctrine.

    A section of the political leadership in Japan has been of the view that with the advancing offensive capability of the adversaries, sole reliance on the US missile shield is not enough and the nation needs to acquire a pre-emptive strike capability. The current missile shield does not offer credible protection against highly advanced hypersonic missiles/weapons (high speed and manoeuvring), low trajectory missiles (with short flight times) and cruise category of missiles (both terrestrial and air-launched). The present consideration is to acquire a pre-emptive strike capability to hit the ballistic missiles sites when the attack against Japan appears imminent – to prevent the missile launches.

    In fact, the defence-related policies of Japan have been undergoing transformation since the first decade of the current millennium.  It was largely effected by China’s growing military capabilities and assertiveness in the region. The transformation began with the establishment of a ministry of defence with the approval of the Japanese Diet on January 9, 2007.8 Higher defence management was also revamped with the establishment of the National Security Council (NSC) and development of the National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2013.9 Major highlights of its journey in the last two decades are collated in its annual defence white papers.

    The current firmness in the idea of pre-emptive strike capability against missile threats seems to have been borne out of compulsion of the prevailing situation in the region, though since 2010, the Japanese forces have adopted a Dynamic Defence Capability doctrine not bound by purely defence concepts. In 2018, they started on the development of Multi-Domain Defence Force, however, all this while they have continued to evade the pre-emptive strike aspect. With the advancement of weapons technology, the adequacy of the current missile defence based on anti-ballistic missiles is increasingly being questioned. In that line of thought, Japan has suspended its plan to acquire the Aegis Ashore despite the progress made towards its acquisition.

    Japan’s quest for pre-emptive strike capability indicates a major shift in its defence doctrine. Given the worsening regional security environment, Japan does not seem to have much choice.  Reference to the pre-emptive aspect may have so far evaded Japan’s annual defence white papers, but conjectures of its inevitability are rife in media. It is only a matter of time before Japan takes up such an offensive defence doctrine carrying a high possibility of conflict initiation/escalation with it.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.