Photo/Illutration A Self-Defense Force's surface-to-ship guided missile (Provided by Defense Ministry)

A new missile defense policy directive approved by the Suga administration makes no mention of whether Japan should acquire first-strike capability against enemy targets, but says plans are on track to develop longer-range cruise missiles.

Strengthening Japan's deterrent capability was a major policy pillar advocated by Suga's predecessor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

When Abe in June announced that the government would abandon plans to purchase the costly U.S.-developed land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system, he stated that a new national security directive was necessary and that discussions could not be put off on whether Japan should acquire first-strike capability.

Prior to leaving office in September for health reasons, Abe called for a new defense strategy to be established before year-end.

The document approved Dec. 18 amounts to the Suga administration’s response to the request.

Despite vague wording, it pledged that further discussions would be held within the government on ways to strengthen Japan’s deterrence, but set no deadline for when that might happen.

While no mention was made of possessing first-strike capability, the wording left open the possibility that discussions could lead to agreement in the future on the need for such a posture.

The Abe administration at one time also considered making the first revamp of the National Security Strategy, but sources said the Suga administration would only consider such a possibility sometime next year.

The newly approved initiative also did not use the wording of “preventing enemy missile attacks” used by the Abe administration and lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in place of first-strike capability.

The toned-down nature of the document was clearly a concession to junior coalition partner Komeito, which maintains a strong pacifist stance. It also included wording to appease conservative elements in the LDP close to Abe who are rallying for a more robust defense.

The document stated that work would continue on developing a cruise missile with a longer range than the current surface-to-ship guided missiles in the arsenal of the Self-Defense Forces.

It was presented as a way of strengthening defense capability through the use of so-called stand-off missiles that can be fired from outside the range of enemy missiles.

Current surface-to-ship guided missiles have a range of less than 200 kilometers, but some in the LDP foresee an advanced version with a range of 1,000 km.

If successful, the longer-range cruise missile would be the first developed domestically.

The advanced cruise missile and the JASSM-ER missile planned for installation on F-15 fighter jets could be converted into missiles capable of striking enemy missile bases.

But the Cabinet document only said that the missiles would be used against enemy ships that threaten outlying islands and fired from outside the range of weapons on those vessels.

The document also said that in place of the abandoned Aegis Ashore missile defense system, two Maritime SDF destroyers would be converted to allow for installation of the land-based equipment. But final decisions on the capabilities and design of those destroyers would be made next year, the document added.

(This article was written by Daizo Teramoto and Yuki Nikaido.)