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The Case Against Aegis Ashore

SNA (Tokyo) — While the Abe administration presents Aegis Ashore as an essential and relatively uncontroversial contribution to the defense of Japan from the North Korean threat, in reality the deployment of this missile defense system risks further destabilizing the security situation in Northeast Asia, especially with regard to Russia.

In December 2017, the Japanese government formally decided to purchase Aegis Ashore, the US-made ground-based ballistic missile defense system. It is anticipated that two units will be installed, with Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures identified as the candidate sites. The first of these deployments is planned to be completed during fiscal 2023.

The Abe administration has justified the purchase of this system as a necessary response to the growth in the missile threat from North Korea. Japan has two existing missile defense systems, but each has limitations.

The first of these is the Patriot PAC-3, which can intercept incoming missiles during their terminal phase. The units are mobile but provide limited coverage, meaning that they can offer protection to specific sites, such as central Tokyo or military installations, but not to the country as a whole.

The PAC-3 system is therefore combined with Aegis-equipped destroyers, whose interceptors can eliminate missiles during their mid-course phase. This system can theoretically provide cover for all of Japan, but it is dependent on keeping the Aegis-equipped ships on a continual cycle of deployment in specific areas, something that places an enormous burden on Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces.

As such, there is an apparent logic in purchasing a third system that can provide constant protection for all of Japanese territory. Additionally, the Aegis Ashore system has superior capabilities and range than the existing Aegis-equipped destroyers. In particular, it is claimed that it is better at dealing with simultaneous launches as well as missiles on a lofted trajectory, both things that North Korea has simulated in recent missile tests.

Presented this way, it appears hard to argue with the decision to adopt Aegis Ashore.

Yet, as time has passed, the chorus of opposition has grown louder.

Voices of Opposition

One criticism is that the introduction of the missile defense system runs counter to the current trend of reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, some may argue that Aegis Ashore is now superfluous following the meeting between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-Un in Singapore in June at which the North Korean leader agreed “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

This is, however, a weak argument since it is far from certain that the North Korean commitment in Singapore was sincere. Furthermore, even if denuclearization were to proceed smoothly, Pyongyang would still retain a dangerous arsenal of non-nuclear missiles that are capable of reaching Japan.

A more convincing criticism is of the cost of the system. It was always known that Aegis Ashore would be expensive, but the extent is only now becoming clear.

At the end of July, sources in the Ministry of Defense revealed that the estimated cost of the two Aegis Ashore units had been revised up by around 70%. With the inclusion of other elements, such as the interceptor missiles, the total cost of the project is now expected to exceed 600 billion yen (US$5.4 billion).

This is an extraordinary spending commitment in a country where government debt was equivalent to 253% of GDP in 2017, and where the Abe administration pretends to be pursuing the goal of a fiscal surplus by 2025.

Separately, there are concerns within the local communities near where the Aegis Ashore batteries are set to be located. These center on the extent to which the presence of the missile defense units will make their area a target for foreign military planners. Additionally, there are worries about the health effects of the powerful, but largely unproven, Lockheed Martin Solid State Radar that the Japanese government has selected for use with the Aegis Ashore units.

A Destabilizing Factor in Northeast Asia

Both the expense of the system and its potential health implications are genuine concerns, but perhaps the most serious worry about Aegis Ashore is the destabilizing effect it could have on Northeast Asian security. The Japanese government insists that it is a purely defensive system, which will be under Japan’s exclusive control. This is not, however, the view of Japan’s neighbors.

Tokyo’s decision to invest further in US missile defense has been criticized by both China and North Korea. However, the most strident and sustained condemnation of Aegis Ashore has come from Russia.

Russia is the only peer of the United States when it comes to nuclear weapons, and it has come to rely ever more on its vast strategic arsenal since it lost the conventional superiority that the Soviet Union enjoyed over the West in Europe. Moreover, as the United States has demonstrated its willingness to use military force internationally since the 1990s, Russia has come to regard its nuclear capabilities as a vital means of deterring US interventionism. This has become all the more important following the recent increase in tensions between Russia and the West, and Washington’s explicit identification of Russia as an adversary.

For this reason, Russian strategists regard US missile defense systems as a leading threat to national security. From Moscow’s perspective, the United States is engaged in a long-term project to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent and thereby give itself a free hand to act without fear of Russian retaliation.

The crucial step in this regard was the decision of President George W. Bush in 2002 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Signed in 1972, this agreement had barred Washington and Moscow from deploying nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles. The treaty’s preamble described this as a “substantial factor in curbing the race in strategic offensive arms.”

During the years since this withdrawal, Moscow believes that the United States has worked assiduously to surround Russia with elements of its expanding missile defense system. Some of these units have been installed within the United States itself, while others have been planned for deployment on the territory of US allies.

The Russian authorities claim that the US justifies these deployments by using the excuse that the missile defense systems are needed to protect allies from the threat of rogue states. In Europe, Iran is the supposed threat; in East Asia, it is North Korea. In each case, Russia believes that it is the real target.

Aegis Ashore is therefore seen as just the latest link in the United States’ expanding network of missile defense systems, and Moscow is dismissive of Tokyo’s claim that it will be an independent Japanese system. This view was expressed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in January 2018, when he told journalists that, “We don’t know any cases anywhere in this world where the United States, having deployed its weapons systems, would hand the control over them to a host country. I have strong doubts that they will make an exception in this case.”

This view will only have strengthened when Isao Iijima, a special advisor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, told the media in June that the decision to purchase Aegis Ashore was pushed upon Japan by the United States.

Prior to the final decision being taken, Russia intensively lobbied the Abe administration not to agree to purchase further US missile defense systems. This included the warning by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in March 2017 that the deployment of such systems “will destroy the balance in the Pacific region.” Having ignored these words of caution, Japan must expect some consequences.

This was made clear immediately after the announcement of Japan’s decision to purchase the system when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that Aegis Ashore will create “a new situation, which we logically must take account of in our military planning.” At the same time, Maria Zakharova, chief spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warned that the decision “will have a negative impact on the overall atmosphere of bilateral relations, including negotiations on the issue of a peace treaty.”

Although no explicit link has been made, it is likely that the recent intensification of the Russian military presence on the disputed Southern Kuriles is connected with the Aegis Ashore decision. In particular, in January 2018, the Russian government issued a directive which designates the airport on the island of Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese) as dual-use. This opens the way for it to be used for military jets and, sure enough, Su-35S fighters were deployed to the island in July.

Similarly, it is possible that Russia’s foot-dragging on the implementation of joint economic activities with Japan on the disputed islands is also a response to Aegis Ashore. This may be seen as an effective way of punishing the Japanese government since Prime Minister Abe has made the joint projects a prominent feature of his foreign policy and has presented them as a stepping stone to the resolution of the territorial dispute.

Causing a setback to bilateral relations with Russia might be a price worth paying if Aegis Ashore were to radically improve Japan’s security situation. In reality, however, it will not.

No Lasting Gain in Security

Although Aegis Ashore would undoubtedly enhance the technical capabilities of Japanese missile defense, the system can still only deal with a limited number of missiles and is not 100% reliable. As such, just as Japan’s sense of security did not meaningfully change after the billions that were spent on PAC-3 and the Aegis-equipped destroyers, so it will be with Aegis Ashore.

Indeed, any small gain in security is certain to be swiftly eroded as those countries that feel threatened by Aegis Ashore adapt their behavior or introduce more sophisticated weapons systems to overcome Japan’s additional layer of missile defense. In no time at all, the military experts will be arguing that Japan needs to spend yet more billions on some other new system that also offers no more than a fleeting illusion of security. In other words, Japan will simply have contributed to an emerging arms race and to the intensification of nuclear tensions between the United States and Russia.

There is no question that Japan is genuinely facing a threatening security environment. However, there is no technical fix to this problem. Instead, lasting security can only be achieved through diplomacy, confidence building, and mutual threat reduction.

Ultimately, Aegis Ashore is an enormously expensive means of creating insecurity for others while generating little added security for Japan itself. There remains time for Japan to reconsider this decision. It should do so as a matter of urgency.

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