Japan is developing a longer-range, air-launched anti-ship cruise missile.
The reason? China’s navy is deploying longer-range anti-aircraft missiles, which means Japanese aircraft will have to launch their anti-ship weapons from longer range or risk being shot down.
Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya cited longer-range air defenses on warships belonging to “some countries,” though there could be little doubt that he was referring to one nation in particular.
“The plan involves extending the range of Japan's supersonic ASM-3 air-to-ship missiles, which are said to have a range of less than 200 kilometers [124 miles], to over 400 km [249 miles], with the aim of beefing up Tokyo's ability to defend a chain of outlying islands in the southwest,” according to Japan’s Mainichi newspaper.
“The F-2s are expected to retire in the 2030s and Iwaya said Japan is considering loading their successor fighter jets with the longer-range missiles,” Mainichi noted. Japan is developing the F-3, an indigenous stealth fighter.
What’s interesting is that the new missile is being developed even though Japan only finished developing its predecessor, the ASM-3, last year (for a graphic of the ASM-3, go here). The ASM-3 was designed to be launched by the F-2, Japan’s version of the U.S. F-16. The missile can either travel straight at the target ship from low altitude, or be launched low and “pop up” to high altitude before diving down on its target.
Japan is already opting for long-range ship-killers with a purchase of Norway’s Joint Strike Missile, with a range of up to 350 miles, for its F-35 stealth fighters.
As for the ASM-3, a Mach 3 missile with a range of just over a hundred miles might have proved quite devastating against China’s navy a decade ago. But the People’s Liberation Army Navy has a new generation of warships, such as the Type 052D guided missile destroyer armed with the HHQ-9 anti-aircraft missile, derived from the land-based HQ-9. The HQ-9 has a range of about 75 to 125 miles depending on the version, which would bring ASM-3-equipped Japanese fighters uncomfortably close to Chinese air defenses.
But there may be another reason for Japan’s desire for a longer-ranged anti-ship missile. China is building a fleet of aircraft carriers, whose jet fighters would extend the air defense perimeter of a Chinese naval task force beyond surface-to-air missile range.
The situation would be reminiscent of the Cold War, when missile-equipped Soviet bombers such as the Tu-22M Backfire, equipped with long-range anti-ship missiles, faced U.S. carrier-based aircraft such as the F-14 Tomcat, which would have endeavored to intercept the bombers before they could reach launch range. Had the Cold War turned hot, the question is whether the Backfires would have been downed before they could saturate American carrier groups with missiles.
What’s also interesting is that Japan is extending the range of its weapons. Haunted by the disaster of World War II, a fiercely pacifistic Japan, despite having a fairly large and sophisticated military, had no appetite for long-distance operations outside Japan.
That pacifism appears to be fading.
“Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution renounces war as a sovereign right of the state and bans the possession of military forces and other ‘war potential,’ but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in the Diet in January last year that he believes long-range cruise missiles are not banned under the supreme law,” Mainichi pointed out.
Japan already plans to deploy F-35B stealth fighters on carrier-like “helicopter-destroyers.” A new air warfare strategy would incorporate American-made standoff air-to-surface missiles. A long-range anti-ship missile would just be a continuation of that trend.