Offensive Strike in Asia: A New Era?

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There has been both applause and anxiety in the wake of reports that Japan is considering the development of long-range missile systems. The move would be a significant shift in the country’s capabilities, and it has alarmed many Japanese who believe that the acquisition would transform their country’s military profile and could destabilize the nation and the region — and many others throughout East Asia share that apprehension.

But in the U.S. security community, the predominant response has been cheers and celebration. This should come as no surprise: Washington has long pressed Tokyo to do more for its defense and to acquire capabilities that allow it to contribute more to regional security. The news has also received strong support in the United States because it follows the Japanese government’s unexpected and disappointing decision to scrap plans to buy an American-made missile defense system, Aegis Ashore, as a result of high costs, technical issues, and public opposition — including from local chapters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — in cities where the system was to be deployed.



Is this reason to celebrate? Our answer is a cautious and qualified “yes.” From a U.S. perspective, the acquisition of offensive strike options by allies makes sense only if they are developed within an alliance framework and with proper guardrails, and if they are deployed in consultation and cooperation with allies and partners. No ally is proposing to develop and deploy these capabilities without liaising with the United States, but it is unclear, for now, how these capabilities would be managed in an alliance context and what the implications would be for regional security.

There is a long way to go from a proposal by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s defense policy committee for an “enemy bases attack capability” to a deployed missile strike system. Moreover, Japan has long contemplated the development of such a capability. The idea emerged in the 1950s and has ebbed and flowed since, ensnared in debates over legality and fit, given resource constraints and public sentiment.

In recent years, however, Tokyo has considered the option more seriously as North Korean and Chinese missile threats have grown. In this threat environment, there is thus a good chance that development and deployment will proceed. But, at a minimum, it is far too early for Washington to celebrate — recall, for instance, that in March 2017 the Liberal Democratic Party examined but did not deliver on the issue.

Washington should also be cautious because a strike capability is not an unalloyed good. It can strengthen regional defense and deterrence, but it can also detract from, or even undermine, U.S. and allied cooperation and coordination. Much, if not more, depends on how and in what context these new capabilities are acquired, deployed, and employed rather than on what they are.

If Japan does acquire missile strike capabilities, it would not do so in isolation. Recently, Washington agreed to a substantial lengthening of the range and increase in the payload of South Korean missiles, changes that would allow Seoul to strike all of North Korea and some parts of China. Just last July, Washington also agreed that Seoul would get a green light to develop solid fuel for space launch vehicles. And a few months ago Australia committed to acquiring long-range strike weapons, a decision triggered by growing concerns in Canberra about China. In short, several U.S. allies, not just Japan, are acquiring strike capabilities.

The United States stands to benefit greatly from these developments, but there are potential risks as well as costs that Washington should not overlook.

At first glance, the benefits to the United States appear obvious. Missile threats from North Korea and China are growing rapidly and Washington’s relationships with both countries are worsening sharply. In this environment, the United States would be well-served by more militarily capable allies that can help it counter these rising threats. While some may charge that such changes are insignificant relative to the threat, the key calculation is whether they would complicate an adversary’s decision-making, introduce or add uncertainty about outcomes, and force that adversary to divert resources that might be used elsewhere. This is the logic behind Andrew Marshall’s competitive strategies approach, which he developed to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War but is applicable against China today: It requires thinking through and acting in ways that improve one’s relative position against an adversary in a long-term competition.

Most optimistically, a concerted effort by the United States and its allies on strike might encourage adversaries to negotiate: first confidence building measures, then restraints, and later — likely, much later — arms control agreements. At present, however, the primary goal is to regain the initiative and turn the tables on adversaries, which have made important advances in strategic concepts and capabilities in recent years.

Countering the Chinese missile threat is particularly urgent: Beijing is increasingly capable of preventing U.S. military access to, and ability to maneuver within and around, the “first island chain,” the first geographic barrier off the East Asian mainland that the United States has, since the 1950s, regarded as its primary line of defense in Asia. The just-published Pentagon report on China’s military and security developments, for instance, estimates that Beijing has fielded approximately 200 intermediate-range ballistic missile launchers and more than 200 DF-26 missiles. This is impressive growth: The 2019 report estimated that Beijing had deployed 80 intermediate-range ballistic missile launchers and 80–160 DF-26 missiles, and the 2018 report reckoned China had about 16–30 launchers and missiles. The DF-26, dubbed the “carrier killer” or “Guam killer” because of its range and precision, can carry nuclear or conventional warheads.

If allies develop strike systems that help regain control of the first island chain, then the United States should promote those acquisitions. Equally important, these developments align with the recent U.S. effort to encourage allied governments to take on a greater share of the defense and deterrence burden. As stated in the Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, “The United States expects our allies and partners to shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats.” The acquisition of capabilities that allow allies and partners to assume more responsibility for regional defense should be encouraged.

In theory, then, missile acquisition and deployment by its Asian allies deserve U.S. support. These developments would not only help create a more favorable balance of power against adversaries, but also promote responsibility and burden-sharing between Washington and its allies.

On closer look, however, there are also real problems. For starters, opportunity costs: These systems are expensive, and it isn’t clear that they are necessarily the tools to prioritize to strengthen defense and deterrence when fiscal belts are tight. Their price tag and deterrence effectiveness should be weighed against those of systems that will not be purchased because of budget constraints. They could come at the expense of efforts to boost resilience against the arguably more urgent gray-zone challenges, for instance.

Development of allied missile capabilities is also taking place in the context of U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and Washington’s desire to deploy longer range missiles in the region. The United States has asked allies to accept U.S. missiles on their territory — their response has been ambivalent at best. U.S. deployments, however, would sidestep many of the opportunity costs associated with indigenous development, encourage greater partnership in the defense industrial sector, and — it should be noted — help reduce the trade imbalance by promoting allied purchases of U.S. defense equipment.

Deploying U.S. missiles would also address another American concern that is rarely voiced out loud: the risk of an ally entangling the United States in a conflict. Many U.S. strategists worry about an ally being emboldened by missile systems and acting in ways that could lead to an unwanted or avoidable conflict with North Korea or China. This fear of Asian allies going rogue has deep roots. Washington opted for bilateral alliances in the 1950s largely to ensure U.S. control over potentially destabilizing partners.

Of course, times have changed, and Washington now wants to empower its allies and give them much greater agency over their own national security and destiny. Some concerns linger, however, especially when it comes to allies acquiring weapons capable of producing strategic consequences.

Allies with greater military capability and freedom of maneuver risk other problems for the United States. This could heighten tensions among allies that are already high as a result of deep-rooted and still raw historical grievances. The Japanese-South Korean relationship could be shaken by missile developments by either country.

In private discussions, Japanese strategists note that South Korea’s longer-range missiles not only threaten North Korea and parts of China but put Japan in range as well. A small group of South Korean strategists is quick to note that they worry as much about Japan as they do about North Korea or China. South Korean experts also warn that since their constitution defines the Korean Peninsula as a single country, a Japanese attack on the North would technically be an attack against the South, too. While South Korean experts indicate in closed-door meetings that their government would likely accept a Japanese attack on the North in some circumstances, they also make clear that it would be deeply controversial because, legally speaking, it would mean an attack on the Korean nation and fuel the belief that Japan is implacably hostile to Korea and determined to keep it divided.

The risk, in short, is that missile capabilities could stoke tensions among U.S. allies and undermine defense cooperation and the deterrence that it creates.

Finally, these capabilities could encourage allies to choose self-help and abandon the United States by developing independent nuclear weapons. Reflecting on Australia’s recent decision to develop long-range missiles, for instance, one analyst has explained that “that possibility now moves further out of the shadows.” If an ally decided to go down that path, others could follow — a development that could unravel the U.S. alliance system and eclipse the role of the United States as Asia’s security guarantor.

Fortunately, allies interested in missile strike systems have discussed them within the framework of their alliance with the United States. The latest report of the Track-1.5 U.S.-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue, for instance, notes that allies have consistently advanced their various deterrence requests within the framework of these longstanding arrangements, not outside or in opposition to them.

In addition, allies are pursuing complementary systems. Japan, for instance, wants to augment its ballistic missile defense system to deter adversaries from launching attacks on its territory. The goal is to minimize incoming missiles as much as possible before they are launched and knock out survivors in the air, while relying on the United States for more general defense. South Korea and Australia, too, are discussing — to an extent — their missile projects with the United States and making sure that they improve the overall alliance defense and deterrence posture.

Crucially, though, allies seem to favor developing and deploying “their” missiles over hosting U.S. missiles, in large part because they assess that they would have more control over these capabilities. Plainly, allies feel a need to hedge against a potentially unpredictable United States.

Washington should make sure that allies proceed with missile strike development and deployment plans within their alliance frameworks. This is vitally important to Washington because these weapons are capable of producing strategic effects and, therefore, strategic consequences. This demands that an acquisition decision be thought through in an alliance context before it is made. The United States and its ally should conduct a thorough assessment of a decision’s benefits, risks, and costs. Opportunity costs should be discussed, too, and consideration given to how allied missile systems would complement U.S. systems planned for deployment in the region. Ideally, then, the acquisition of strike systems by allies would plug a gap (i.e., it would provide an alliance solution to an alliance problem).

Moreover, arrangements should be made to ensure that these systems would be used only in certain circumstances — preferably by mutual consent or, at a minimum, with prior coordination — and there should be consultations among allies as well. This “forcing function” — obliging the United States and its allies to think systematically about ends and means, along with new decision-making processes to better balance responsibilities and capabilities — could be the most valuable part of the acquisition of strike systems.

In an increasingly contested Asian security environment, the United States will benefit from more militarily capable allies. But Washington should not ignore the potential risks and costs, and it should work hard with its allies to mitigate them. The United States and its allies, in fact, should regard this task not as a challenge, but as an opportunity to tighten their relationships further.



David Santoro is vice president and director for nuclear policy at the Pacific Forum. He is completing an edited volume on the U.S.-Chinese strategic nuclear relationship and the impact of the multipolar context (Lynne Rienner, 2021). You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidSantoro1.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at the Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

Image: U.S. Navy