Although Tokyo does not have an army but rather a “self-defense force”, Japan is arming itself against Beijing and Pyongyang and is equipping itself for the first time with a long-range ground attack capability to be used by its destroyers.
Japanese ground-attack missiles with a range of 1,000 miles (1,600 km) will soon be able to reach all of North Korea's territory and Chinese coasts, from Beijing in the north of the country to the strategic Taiwan Strait further south. A new strategic situation is opening up for Tokyo after it was announced on Thursday that Japan had signed a contract to purchase 400 American Tomahawk cruise missiles designed to fire ships at land targets. The news is no surprise: In December, Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara announced his desire to accelerate the deployment, now scheduled for 2025 rather than 2026.
A month earlier, in November, Washington announced the approval of this sale, worth $2.35 billion, of 200 missiles in the “Block IV” version and 200 “Block 5”, the latest evolution of the famous American BGM -109, has been included on all US Navy destroyers and cruisers since 1983. At the end of 2022, the Japanese government announced its intention to acquire 500 Tomahawks as part of its new “national defense strategy”, marking a real turning point in Tokyo's military doctrine as it introduced the need for Japan to engage in a new “counterattack” Ability to prevent any enemy from attacking the island nation first. The purchase of cruise missiles intended for land attacks is a first example of this “change of era”, according to the expression used by the IFRI (French Institute of International Relations) in a communication dated December 2022.
“Japan renounces war forever”
To understand the spectacular nature of this change, we must remember an astonishing paradox: Japan is one of the world's leading military powers without… having an “army.” Since their defeat in the last world war in 1945, the Japanese have had to make do with simple “Self-Defense Forces” (JSDF in English). Their defensive use is strictly regulated in the constitution. Article 9 states: “Japan forever renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation.” But at the same time, Tokyo is actively preparing for the fact that the island nation should one day be attacked…
Over the years, with the comprehensive development of Chinese power and against the background of growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the Japanese began a decisive rearmament. To the point where the idea of revising the pacifist constitution of the world's third economic power began to stimulate debates within conservative and nationalist elites. It was the committed but dead project of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2012-2020), who is on the far right of the country's political spectrum. So the new strategy for 2022 is still within the defensive constitutional framework that has remained unchanged for almost 80 years, but the introduction of the “counterattack” principle represents no less a break, as it directly affects the type of weapons with which the Japanese are now equipping itself.
Given the use they will make of them, we certainly cannot formally describe Tomahawk missiles as “offensive” weapons – since they are always considered in a “defensive” framework – but they still represent a first-line long-range ground attack capability against a supposed opponent. Furthermore, the Japanese strategic vocabulary has evolved rapidly in recent years. In its doctrine, Japan no longer refers to China as a “friend” but as an “unprecedented strategic challenge.” Tokyo has not gone so far as to speak of a “threat,” a term it reserves for North Korea for now, even considering that threat “imminent.”
Image released by the U.S. Navy on January 18, 2024, of the Japanese destroyer Congo alongside American and South Korean ships during a trilateral exercise in the Pacific Ocean. HANDOUT / AFP
This possibility of an impending conflict in the region can already be foreseen when we observe the state of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, especially their maritime component. The Japanese fleet consists of 36 destroyers and 4 frigates or 40 first-class surface ships. For comparison: the French Navy's format, which has remained unchanged for years, is limited to 15 frigates. And that's not all: Equipped with the American Aegis combat system, the eight heavy destroyers of the Kongo, Atago and Maya classes are impressive 10,000-ton ships with 90 or even 96 missile silos. This is double or even triple the capacity offered by almost all European frigates. Previously, these eight ships were loaded with anti-aircraft missiles, but now they will also accommodate Tomahawk surface attack missiles. In the second half of the decade 2020, the number of platforms hosting these new weapons will rise to ten, after Tokyo announced the construction of two more so-called ASEV destroyers, even more impressive. The number of missile silos will rise to 128, a near-world record matched by the South Korean destroyers Sejong the Great and surpassed only by the two Russian cruisers Kirov, a remnant of Soviet gigantism.
Danger of saturation
That these are South Korean and Japanese destroyers is no coincidence: these two Asian fleets are adapting to the advances of their main regional adversary, the PLAN, the Chinese Navy. To date, 49 destroyers and 42 frigates are in service, and the inventory is increasing by five to ten additional units each year. Long-range drones, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, hypersonic gliders… China has an arsenal of several thousand weapons with which it can strike a regional enemy several thousand kilometers away. Not to mention the equally rapid development of North Korea's ballistic arsenal. In this regard, Japanese interception capabilities are expected to increase significantly in the coming years through the planned purchase of new American SM-3 interceptors capable of defeating ballistic missiles, which will also be used by the AEGIS destroyers of the Japanese fleet.
But this defensive approach may not be enough. “China today has the means to saturate the Japanese missile defense system established in the 2000s. Maintaining a deterrence capacity therefore justifies massive investments in counterattack capabilities, which are very expensive and complex to implement. “They must make it possible (…) to attack enemy bases or facilities housing military command and control units,” it says it in the IFRI communication and cites the tomahawks as an example of this new counter-strategy.
Given the naval threat, Japan also wants to increase the range of its indigenous Type 12 anti-ship missiles from 200 to 1,200 km, deployed from shore batteries and destroyers. In 2018, Tokyo also announced the conversion of its two Izumo-class helicopter carriers into light aircraft carriers capable of deploying American F-35B fighters. Again, this small air and sea revolution sparked a lively controversy in Japan, with a section of the political class seeing it as a violation of the pacifist spirit of Article 9 of the Constitution. As for the defense budget, it must double by 2027 to reach 2% of Japan's GDP, based on the model of the financial target set by NATO countries. If this increase is confirmed, Tokyo will rise to third place among the world's military powers in terms of the number of dollars spent. In this context, the next deployment of Tomahawk is a further step in the transformation of this “self-defense force”, which, without being formal, is increasingly resembling a real army.
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