Japan’s abrupt decision to suspend deployment of U.S.-produced AEGIS Ashore missile defense systems amid cost and technical concerns came as a bit of a surprise.
Announced by Defense Minister Taro Kono on June 15, the move effectively freezes a key element of the country’s defense strategy against threats from North Korea, as well as potential adversaries in China and Russia. It also serves as a potential strain on the relationship with Japan’s closest ally and security partner, the United States, at a time the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed allies to increase investment in their respective security.
One of the cornerstones of Japan’s national defense policy – as laid out in its most recent Mid-Term Defense Program (2019-2023) – was the addition of the Lockheed Martin AEGIS Ashore systems to its arsenal in order to provide an extra layer to its current air defense capability.
The new AEGiS Ashore installations would help provide greater range and resiliency in the efforts to defend against incoming ballistic missiles across the entirety of Japanese territory in the event of conflict. Two installations were ordered via the U.S. government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) channel, at an initial price of $2.1 billion.
Once brought into service, the systems would reduce dependency on the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s six AEGIS-equipped destroyers and land-based Japan Air Self-Defense Force Patriot PAC 3 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems to defend against North Korean missiles. The latter are deployed at JASDF bases at Narashino, Hamamatsu, Ashiya, and Tsuiki.
The AEGIS Ashore sites were to be situated on the southwestern and northern ends of Honshu, the largest and most populous island of Japan proper, at Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) bases at Akita Prefecture (north) and Yamaguchi Prefecture (southwest).
The new AEGIS Ashore systems were expected to be deployed by 2025.
But citing cost concerns and technical delays necessitated to ensure rocket boosters do not fall on civilian areas, Japan has put the introduction of the AEGIS Ashore systems on ice for now.
Already the idea had proven controversial in areas destined for AEGIS Ashore deployment, with local governments questioning health and safety concerns related to the systems. These include radiation from the Long Range Discrimination Radar and the aforementioned worries over rocket debris fallout.
Yet without introducing the land-based AEGIS systems, Japan is forgoing (for now at least) an additional capability for which it already has invested $116 million, leaving it reliant upon two air defense shields rather than three.
Further, the order represented a major investment in American technology, which Tokyo could point to when the Trump administration prods America’s allies to invest more in their own defense. Instead, the Japanese government is now left tip-toeing around the issue as it prepares to enter negotiations over cost-sharing for American forces stationed in Japan this fall.
Beyond the potential for a rift in its relationship with Washington, there is the lack of an additional air defense component at a time when China and Russia are continuing to grow their ballistic missile capabilities (a point underlined in Japan’s 2019 Defense White Paper) and always-unpredictable North Korea is issuing fresh threats against South Korea. The messaging sent to these potential adversaries may present a problem, but so, too, do questions of where and how Japan seeks to move forward in achieving a key national defense aim.
With Japan’s economy in recession and the nation confronting a tough economic road due to fallout from the U.S.-China trade dispute and COVID-19 pandemic, the rising costs related to AEGIS Ashore will not quickly recede from view. But by opting for a detour – whether temporary or permanent – Tokyo is now left confronting questions as to how to bolster its ballistic missile defense network without easy answers.