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Japan wants to point 1,000 cruise missiles at China

Evolving Threats And Poor Missile Defenses Are Pushing Japan Towards An Offensive Strike Capability

A Type-12 Surface-to-Air missile fired by Japan's Special Defense Forces. Image: Wikipedia

Japan is considering the deployment of 1,000 long-range cruise missiles to improve its counter-strike capabilities against China, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported on August 21.

The report notes that the missiles will be modified from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s (JGSDF) Type 12 subsonic anti-ship missiles, increasing their range from 100 to 1,000 kilometers.

The missiles are to be deployed from ships and fighter jets and are planned to be based on Japan’s Southwest Islands and Kyushu.

The Yomiuri Shimbun mentions that the upgraded ground-launched Type 12 will be deployed in 2024, two years earlier than planned. Furthermore, the report notes that Japan will upgrade its ground-attack capabilities beyond its original anti-ship role.

The report mentions that Japan is expected to add “counter-strike capabilities” in its upcoming National Security Strategy. It also notes that since cruise missiles will be the core of this capability, Japan’s Ministry of Defense aims to increase missile production by establishing a system to support capital investment by related companies.

Japan has maintained a pacifist foreign policy since World War II and restricted its military’s role to self-defense. However, Japan possesses one of Asia’s most capable militaries despite its lack of offensive capabilities, which can be used to strike enemy targets from Japan’s territory.

Yomiuri Shimbun cites a US Department of Defense (DOD) analysis that states China has 1,900 ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missiles and 300 intermediate-range cruise missiles capable of striking Japan.

The source also notes that North Korea has deployed hundreds of ballistic missiles that can strike Japan. Both China and North Korea have developed hypersonic weapons that could likely penetrate Japan’s missile defenses.

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-26 hypersonic long-range anti-ship missiles during the military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in Beijing, China, 3 September 2015. Photo: Xinhua

In a 2020 article for the Heritage Foundation think tank, senior analyst Bruce Klinger notes the conclusion of a July 2020 Liberal Democratic Party committee, which states that Japan needs to consider ways to strengthen deterrence, including the capability to halt ballistic missile attacks from the territories of its adversaries.

He also notes former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s position that passive missile defenses such as Patriot and Aegis alone were insufficient to defend Japan.

Asia Times has previously reported on the deficiencies of Japan’s Patriot and Aegis missile defenses against a highly-lofted trajectory ballistic missile attack from China and North Korea. China and North Korea can fire ballistic missiles at very high angles, resulting in extremely high terminal velocity speeds, which undermines the effectiveness of any missile defense system.

While no missile system is optimized to defend against highly-lofted attacks, future software upgrades can potentially mitigate this problem.

Asia Times has noted that missile tracking radars often lose track of their targets at the apex of a highly-lofted trajectory and regain track of incoming missiles too late for interceptor missiles to hit.

In addition, interceptor missiles are flying against gravity, making it harder to re-adjust, catch up and hit the target at the right angle compared to the constantly-accelerating enemy missile.

Given these deficiencies in passive missile defenses, Klinger mentions that these may have forced Japan to rethink its defense posture from shooting down missiles to “shooting the archer.”

He notes that holding enemy targets at risk increases the price of any attack on Japan, enhancing deterrence, preserving regional stability and degrading any attempts at coercion. 

Klinger also notes that if Japan integrated its indigenous offensive strike capabilities into the US-Japan alliance, such a move would address concerns about the long-term viability of the US-Japan alliance.

However, Klinger also notes several challenges in Japan’s acquisition of offensive long-range strike capabilities. For example, he points out that Japan needs to define the mission and parameters for its missile forces, the type of weapons to be acquired and if Japan would rely on its targeting capabilities or those of the US.

Japanese Special Defense Forces in a file photo. Image: AFP / EPA

Klinger mentions that Japan lacks the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities for real-time targeting. As such, he notes Japan may have to integrate its offensive long-range strike capabilities into its US alliance.

Moreover, he mentions that Japan’s constrained defense expenditures at less than 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) can mean that the acquisition of long-range strike capabilities may come at the opportunity cost of other defense projects.

Klinger also notes that Japan may be hard-pressed to acquire new offensive strike capabilities, stating that its constrained defense budget already hinders its ability to fulfill its ambitious security plans.

He mentions that Japan may have to break its self-imposed 1% cap on its defense budget, although such a move would face deep political and domestic opposition.