Airmen of the US air force mount JASSM-ER missiles to a B-52H bomber.
A recent report by Kyodo News reveals that Japan has received official approval from the US government to purchase Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) and related equipment. This acquisition of the missile will grant the Japan Air Self-Defense Force an unprecedented long-range strike capability, underscoring its ambition to develop offensive capabilities and potentially break the constraints of the peace constitution.
Pursuing long-range strike capabilities
According to reports, following approval from the US government, Japan can purchase a maximum of 50 JASSM-ER missiles from Lockheed Martin, specifically the AGM-158B/B-2 model. The contract includes a range of equipment and services, such as anti-jamming GPS receivers, training rounds, spare parts, maintenance support, and personnel training, all of which worth up to USD104 million.
The JASSM-ER missile is the latest generation long-range air-to-ground cruise missile used by the US military. It measures 4.27 meters in length, has a wingspan of 2.4 meters, and boasts a range of approximately 1,000 kilometers. It represents an improved extended-range version of the JASSM missile and offers strong penetration capabilities and high strike precision.
Currently, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force primarily relies on F-15J, F-2, and F-35A fighter jets, with the F-15J having a combat radius of 2,000 kilometers, and the F-2 and F-35A having combat radius of approximately 1,000 kilometers. Equipped with the JASSM-ER missiles, their strike distances will significantly increase.
Furthermore, JASSM-ER missiles can also be used in conjunction with strategic bombers. In 2021, the US conducted strike tests using the B-2 stealth bomber equipped with these missiles. It's not inconceivable that Japan may follow suit and adopt a "stealth bomber plus stealth cruise missile" combination. According to reports, Japan is considering retrofitting its 13 active C-2 transport aircraft by introducing the US-made "Rapid Dragon" palletized munitions system, which would enable these aircraft to launch long-range cruise missiles and serve as strategic bombers. In this envisioned scenario, the modified C-2 transport aircraft could potentially carry up to 36 missiles, executing deep-strike missions against high-value targets such as military bases and missile launch sites. This indicates that Japan's aspirations extend beyond just regional strike capabilities, hinting at a larger ambition for global strike capabilities.
Accelerating self-research and upgrading
Japan's recent procurement of long-range cruise missiles highlights the evolving offensive capabilities of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, moving away from a primarily defensive posture. It even appears to be accelerating its journey toward establishing "global rapid strike capabilities."
In recent years, Japan has been rapidly advancing its offensive capabilities development plans. In 2020, Japan focused on developing "enemy base attack capabilities" and sought for long-range strike weapons, applying to the US to purchase JASSM-ER missiles. In December 2022, Japan revised three strategic documents, including the National Security Strategy, designating the acquisition of long-range strike capabilities as one of its primary tasks for the next five years, with plans to invest five trillion yen (approximately USD34.4 billion) in this endeavor. Procuring and developing long-range cruise missiles is a focal point of this plan. Besides purchasing JASSM-ER missiles, Japan is taking various measures to enhance its long-range strike capabilities.
Firstly, Japan has allocated 211.3 billion yen in its 2023 defense budget for the purchase of 400 American Tomahawk multi-role cruise missiles.
Secondly, Japan is expediting the upgrade and modification of domestically produced missiles, planning to increase the range of the Type 12 anti-ship coastal missile to 900 kilometers in 2023, with further enhancements to 1,500 kilometers in the future. Additionally, Japan is expanding its sea-based and air-based launch variants to target both ground and maritime objectives.
Lastly, the Japanese Defense Ministry plans to introduce new homegrown hypersonic ballistic missiles for the defense of remote islands. Simultaneously, they are advancing research projects related to the Hyper Velocity Gliding Projectile (HVGP) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM).
Military collaboration with the US
The US granting approval for Japan to develop offensive capabilities can be seen as a green light for Japan's rearmament efforts. This signifies a gradual erosion of the boundaries in US policy towards Japan.
Analysts believe that the US is breaking with tradition by exporting long-range "killer weaponry" to Japan. The fundamental intention behind this move is to bolster Japan's foundational military capabilities, enabling closer cooperation in joint military operations with the US. This is seen as part of the US' broader strategy to prepare for the pursuit of its strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the past, the US has generally maintained a cautious approach to arms sales to Japan, refraining from selling offensive weapons such as the Tomahawk and JASSM-ER missiles. However, in recent years, the US has been shifting its stance and has been selling offensive weapons, including cruise missiles, to several allies, including Japan and Australia. This move is aimed at building closer ties with these countries and using them as key players in promoting the "Indo-Pacific Strategy" within the context of the so-called "Great Power Competition." It also serves to alleviate some of the military pressure on the US. With the delivery and use of JASSM-ER missiles, there is a heightened possibility that Japan could become involved in conflicts at the behest of the US. This could present a significant challenge to regional security.