The threat to Japan is primarily nuclear-tipped medium-range missiles. Reducing or eliminating the intercontinental missile threat to the United States is of some interest to Japan, but not totally comforting. Considering the possible devastating effects, and the need to respond to North Korea’s political-military strategy, Japan needs another layer of missile defense. If we cannot be certain of eliminating North Korea’s missiles and nuclear warheads, then we must eliminate Kim’s confidence that he can strike Japan. Pervasive surveillance conducted from international airspace well away from any threat, early engagement, and repeated engagement if necessary, are the keys.
We have the ability today to integrate three existing alliance capabilities and greatly enhance Japan’s security. Japan and the United States both operate Aegis ships with the capability to interdict ballistic and cruise missiles. U.S. unmanned aerial systems—Predator, Reaper, others—have grown exponentially as a result of extensive combat over more than two decades. They carry superb surveillance and target-quality data processing and transmission capabilities. The Predator platform alone has over five million combat flight-hours.
Our Cooperative Engagement Capability exists to connect sensors to shooters—in this case connecting Predator surveillance targeting data to Japan’s Missile Defense Command and Aegis ships. Combining near-total continuous surveillance of North Korea with weapons-firing platforms will permit very early engagement against North Korean missiles while they are highly vulnerable during ascent, and thus unable to maneuver. This will greatly reduce the value of North Korea’s nuclear and missile investments. It will eliminate Kim’s confidence that he can strike Japan. This capability, available in the very near term, will also positively shape the conditions around our negotiations.
Talk-talk is better than war-war, as the old saying declares. Of course, we should continue to negotiate, especially in difficult cases like this. Maybe especially in cases like this. But allowing other parties to shape the conditions while we passively admire the problem is malpractice. We must actively build the conditions in favor of our allies and our strategy. It’s an all-of-government effort, an accurate if overused description. This negotiating process is too important to be left to the negotiators.
Wallace C. Gregson, a retired Marine and former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009–11), is currently senior advisor at Avascent International and senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.