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Fumio Ota

【#692】Aegis Ashore Suspension Putting Countless Lives at Risk

Fumio Ota / 2020.06.24 (Wed)

June 22, 2020

On June 15, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono announced the government would suspend a plan to deploy Aegis Ashore ground-based air defense missile systems in Yamaguchi and Akita prefectures as it could not be guaranteed that boosters to be detached from missiles after their firing would be accurately dropped on training ranges of the Ground Self-Defense Force.

If adversary nuclear missiles hit Japan, hundreds of thousands of or millions of lives would be lost. The probability is not zero but extremely close to zero that the empty tank below 2 meters in length after combustion would hit a private house. The question is which loss would be viewed as more significant.

U.S. hopes to continue talks

Japan has not cancelled the plan, said David Helvey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs. “Our focus is having the technical discussions.”

Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera proposed that Aegis Ashore systems be mounted on used ships of the Maritime Self-Defense Force. The installment of an Aegis system with a heavy radar at its top on an old destroyer could raise the gravity center of the ship and make the ship vulnerable to capsizing.

A more promising proposal might be that only a missile launcher be installed on an offshore facility to avoid the booster problem. A missile launcher at some distance from a radar and a command and control systems would cause few problems. In fact, the U.S. Navy’s Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) allows a launcher on a ship to intercept an adversary missile detected and tracked by a radar on another ship. The JDS Maya, Aegis destroyer put into service last March has the capability.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated the government’s intention to consider acquiring a capability to attack enemy missile bases. Aegis Ashore launchers can be used in the future for launching Tomahawk long-range ground-to-ground cruise missiles against enemy bases.

Burdens on Aegis destroyers growing severer

An active MSDF officer complains that he urgently departed from port aboard a ship on information of North Korea’s possible ballistic missile launch, spent several months at sea, and found his bed moldy at home. MSDF ships are supposed to be deployed after sufficient repair and maintenance services and crewmembers’ education and training. However, MSDF ships are frequently forced to depart from port for urgent missions without sufficient education and training as they have no time for them.

In 2017, U.S. Navy Aegis destroyers were involved in three accidents including collisions with private vessels and a grounding. The successive accidents were attributable to the lack of personnel and readiness, retired Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin wrote in the June 2018 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings magazine after being dismissed as the Commander of 7th Fleet to take responsibility for the accidents.

If the suspension of the Aegis Ashore deployment plan works to increase burdens on crewmembers for Aegis destroyers as the core of Japan’s missile defense, relevant servicepersons may resign one after another to further aggravate personnel shortages, affecting Japan’s missile defense preparedness. Which is more significant, the booster problem or national security? The weighty question faces politicians.

Fumio Ota is a senior fellow and a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. He is a retired Vice Admiral of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.