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Japan shifts focus from defensive Aegis to ‘pre-emptive’ strike capability

Following revelations that Japan has formally cancelled its introduction of the Aegis Ashore defence system, the country has shifted gears with a focus firming on developing and introducing a ‘pre-emptive’ strike capability to maintain strategic stability and national security, with interesting results for the Indo-Pacific.

Following revelations that Japan has formally cancelled its introduction of the Aegis Ashore defence system, the country has shifted gears with a focus firming on developing and introducing a ‘pre-emptive’ strike capability to maintain strategic stability and national security, with interesting results for the Indo-Pacific.

Deterrence theory is as old as warfare and international relations. While the methods have changed throughout history, the concept and doctrine remains constant, albeit, significantly more lethal. 

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In the contemporary context, deterrence is best broken down into two distinct concepts as identified by US academic Paul Huth in his journal article 'Deterrence and International Conflict: Empirical Findings and Theoretical Debates', which states that a policy of deterrence can fit into two distinct categories, namely:

  1. Direct deterrence: Preventing an armed attack against a state's own territory; and
  2. Extended deterrence: Preventing an armed attack against another state. 

The advent of nuclear weapons and strategic force multiplier platforms like aircraft carriers, ballistic missile and attack submarines and long-range strategic bomber aircraft, supported by air-to-air refuelling capabilities, fundamentally rewrote the rules of deterrence capabilities. 

Strategic nuclear forces have served as the primary pillar of this strategic deterrence policy of many great powers since the advent of the nuclear era in the dying days of the Second World War.

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The doctrine of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' or MAD, served as a key tenant of preventing global calamity that would result from the truly global conflict between two diametrically opposed superpowers. 

Vast nuclear triads made up of complimentary land, air and sea based systems, ranging from hardened silos of ballistic missiles, submarine launched ballistic and cruise missiles and fleets of conventional and stealth heavy bombers, each capable of raining down death and destruction on an apocalyptic scale kept the US and Soviet Union in a tense, often tenuous state of amicable hostility. 

American strategic policy academic Michael Keane describes deterrence as "the prevention or inhibition of action brought about by fear of the consequences. Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction. It assumes and requires rational decision makers".

As the regional balance of power has evolved, Asia's leading post-Second World War power, Japan has tentatively navigated the rise of China in particular within the context of its pacifist, post-war constitution – however, the limitations established now place Japan at a disadvantage when facing a nuclear armed political, economic and military superpower on their doorstep. 

This challenge is further impacted by the increasingly unpredictable and destructive behaviour of the North Korean regime, which frequently threatens Japan, South Korea and the US with nuclear Armageddon. 

In response, Japan initially pursued an extensive and overlapping layer of missile defence capabilities, combining a potent fleet of Aegis equipped guided missile destroyers, land-based air-and-missile defence systems including the Patriot missile systems and finally, the development of overlapping Aegis Ashore missile defence systems providing complete coverage of the Japanese mainland. 

Shifting away from Aegis ashore 

Despite progress made on the infrastructure and equipment associated with the Aegis ashore system, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has recently moved to formally suspend the acquisition of the costly platform in order to shift the nation's focus towards what is described as "pre-emptive strike capabilities against enemy rocket launchers as a less-costly alternative to the Aegis Ashore missile shield".

As part of the plans under consideration, the Japanese government is investigating a number of potential options to provide strategic security and comprehensive missile defence to the otherwise exposed island nation – these include costly expansions of the existing Aegis-equipped destroyer fleet and developing offshore structures to accommodate Aegis systems offshore.

However, by far the most interesting development is the continuation and expansion of the decision by the Japanese government in 2017 to pursue and field long-range cruise missiles, which could be deployed on Japan's fighter aircraft force. 

This is particularly relevant as adversaries offensive missile systems become increasingly capable and hard to intercept, particularly as hypersonics continue to proliferate and become increasingly capable, something the Japanese Government has anticipated and uses as a justification for withdrawing from the Aegis ashore program. 

A senior Japanese defence official is quoted as saying, "This is a de facto withdrawal [from Aegis ashore]. It will become harder to intercept missiles."

This was reinforced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who said, "We want to thoroughly consider the matter as a strictly defensive policy."

Japan does not, however, define what it considers a "pre-emptive strike capability" and what it will be pursuing, however, it does identify, "The Japanese government has rejected the idea of possessing arms designed exclusively for attacking other nations. The category includes intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and attack carriers."

However, such reassurances haven't stopped the Japanese pursuing the acquisition of power projection capabilities in the past, most recently the modifications of the Izumo Class "helicopter destroyers", which are currently undergoing a suite of modifications and modernisations to enable them to field a number of fifth-generation, F-35B fighter aircraft. 

So, what does this mean? Well it is an interesting predicament that will add further dynamics for the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, particularly should Japan seek to develop and deploy a range of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM), however it is important to recognise that conventional variants pack a limited punch for "pre-emptively" targeting adversary missiles, leaving potentially only one option: nuclear weapons.

For Australia, this presents an increasingly challenging tactical and strategic environment, despite the relationship between Japan and Australia, and further complicates the nation's future strategic and force structure planning and raises the ultimate question, if Japan goes nuclear, should Australia join the club?

Crossing the "nuclear Rubicon"

Enter widely respected Australian strategic and defence policy analyst Hugh White, who recently kicked the hornets nest of debate with his new book, How to Defend Australia, and a series of supporting opinion pieces. 

White set the scene for the Australian public, presenting perhaps one of the most asinine questions of recent strategic debate:

"Should Australia defend itself? Our choice is not an easy one. Just because we probably can build the forces to defend ourselves does not mean we necessarily should. As we have seen, the costs would be very high, and it is not a foregone conclusion that the benefits outweigh those costs."

While this represents a quick summary of White's proposal, it broadly encapsulates his modus operandi – that is the path of least resistance and a belief that Australia is incapable of affecting its own future. 

However, his most controversial option, the possibility of Australia developing or acquiring a domestic nuclear capability, remains an interesting conundrum for Australia's political and strategic leaders and public to consider as the region we are increasingly dependent upon continues to evolve and challenge our preconceptions of how we think the world should work. 

While floating the idea, White specifically states he "neither predicts nor advocates" for the development of a domestic nuclear arsenal, yet it has been met with increasing debate and dialogue, with many taking to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to discuss the options and the very idea of Australia's own nuclear arsenal, and the supporting doctrine required. 

A key component of this discussion is reshaping the debate, ASPI senior fellow Rod Lyon clearly articulates this in what he describes as "crossing the nuclear Rubicon"

  • "Australians [need] to think differently about nuclear weapons — as direct contributors to our defence rather than as abstract contributors to global stability;
  • a bipartisan political consensus to support proliferation, during both development and deployment of a nuclear arsenal;
  • a shift in Australia’s diplomatic footprint, to build a case for our leaving the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and abrogating the Treaty of Rarotonga, while still being able to retail a coherent story of arms control and nuclear order;
  • serious investment in the technologies and skill-sets required to construct and deploy, safely and securely, both nuclear warheads and appropriate delivery vehicles; and
  • a strategy which gives meaning to our arsenal and an explanation of our thinking to our neighbours and our major ally."

Lyon also goes on to expand on White's central premise for considering an Australian nuclear option, what White calls "nuclear blackmail", defined more simply as nuclear coercion by a nuclear armed and conventionally well-equipped great power, providing examples of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and, most relevant for Australia, French concepts of 'minimum deterrence'. 

Lyon states the French Cold War nuclear doctrine, which "called for an arsenal that could ‘rip the arm off’ a superpower, leaving it an amputee among its more able-bodied peers", fits in well with Australia's existing conventional doctrine, which is focused on controlling the sea-air gap and limiting a hostile nation's attempts to coerce the otherwise isolated nation. 

Building on this, Lyon articulates: "So, should Australia build its own nuclear arsenal? I think the answer is, ‘Yes, if it needs to.’ That’s a big ‘if’ — indeed, a series of big ‘ifs’: if the regional strategic environment becomes appreciably darker; if US extended nuclear deterrence is no longer available, or patently incredible; and, perhaps just as importantly, if there’s bipartisan Australian acceptance of the need for an indigenous arsenal."

Your thoughts

In the years following the end of the Second World War, long-range air power in the form of the Canberra and later the F-111 bombers served as critical components in the nation's air power arsenal.

Supporting the long-range strike provided by the RAAF's fleet of bombers, Australia's fleet of Oberon, followed by Collins Class, submarines have also served as a powerful strategic deterrence capability while Australia has been able to ensure qualitative edges over potential adversaries, however, the economic growth and commitment by Australia's neighbours mean that the nation's qualitative-edge is diminishing. 

Additionally, the increasing power of cyber warfare and asymmetric capabilities will play an important role in evaluating, defining and developing a robust, multi-domain strategic deterrence capability for Australia. 

The long-range tactical and strategic deterrence capabilities of such platforms, combined with the qualitative edge of Australian personnel and technological advantages of these platforms, ensured Australia unrestricted regional dominance against all but the largest peer competitors.

The rapidly evolving regional environment requires a renewed focus on developing a credible, future-proofed long-range strike capability for the RAAF and RAN to serve as critical components in the development of a truly 'joint force' Australian Defence Force capable of supporting and enhancing the nation's strategic engagement and relationships in the region.

For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.

Enhancing Australias capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australias sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. 

Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce also issued a challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying:

"If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.

We would also like to hear your thoughts on the avenues Australia should pursue to support long-term economic growth and development in support of national security in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Japan shifts focus from defensive Aegis to ‘pre-emptive’ strike capability
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