THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
June 25, 2020 at 17:18 JST
Defense Minister Taro Kono has always been considered a political maverick, but his recent decision concerning national security appeared to catch Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by surprise.
Kono visited Abe at his office on the evening of June 4 to discuss the deployment plans for the land-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system.
“I don’t want to go ahead with this,” sources quoted Kono as telling Abe.
The prime minister pressed Kono about whether he realized the enormity of what he was suggesting.
“You served as foreign minister so you clearly know what the situation is, don’t you?” Abe was quoted as telling Kono.
However, Kono’s decision to halt plans for the missile defense system stood. And now, Japan is preparing for the “enormity” mentioned by Abe.
Japan approved the purchase of two Aegis Ashore systems in December 2017 after repeated ballistic missile launches by North Korea and strong pressure from the U.S. Trump administration to buy more U.S. defense equipment.
The projected total cost for the two sets, maintenance of the equipment for 30 years, and operational training for Self-Defense Force members was set at about 450 billion yen ($4.2 billion).
Japan has already signed a contract with the United States for the initial part of the defense system at a cost of 178.7 billion yen, and 19.6 billion yen has already been paid.
But discussions that started this year between Japanese and U.S. officials led to the revelation that additional costs and time would be needed to ensure that the rocket booster used to send the interceptor missile into space would not fall on residential areas.
In addition to the required tinkering with the computer software, a much bigger issue was the need for revisions of the rocket booster that would take 12 years to complete and cost about 200 billion yen.
Kono, believing that it would be irrational to go ahead with the changes, announced on June 15 that the Aegis Ashore deployment plan would be stopped.
On June 24, the National Security Council approved moving toward ending the deployment plan.
Kono reported on the council’s decision at a June 25 joint meeting of panels within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that deal with defense and national security issues.
Ending the Aegis Ashore deployment plan will mean breaking the signed contract with the United States, and Japan will likely have to pay a penalty.
Kono only said that discussions would be held with U.S. officials.
Another major issue facing Japan is how to bolster its missile defense without the Aegis Ashore system.
The National Security Council will hold concentrated discussions over the summer about what alternatives are available.
The talks will continue until the end of September when government ministries and agencies are required to present their requests for the fiscal 2021 budget.
The government will then ask a panel of experts to discuss possible revisions to the National Security Strategy, which was first compiled in December 2013 by the Abe Cabinet.
The strategy is expected to be changed by year-end, along with amendments to the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Medium-Term Defense Program, which spells out the defense equipment needed by the SDF.
Kono had lived up to his reputation as a maverick when he called for a thorough review of defense equipment after being named defense minister in September 2019.
But because a large portion of Japanese defense equipment purchases are from the United States, any reduction would likely have ramifications in other bilateral issue areas.
Kono has never shied away from stating his views, even if they went against the general consensus in the LDP.
In the past, he called for moving away from nuclear power even as the LDP remained a strong proponent of such power generation.
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