Japan’s New Missile-Defense Ships Are Getting Weird

Four years ago the Japanese government decided to install two American-designed Aegis Ashore missile-defense systems on the home islands in order to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles.

As part of the potentially $2 billion program, Tokyo paid U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin $300 million for a pair of new SPY-7 radars.

Then, last year, the Japanese Aegis Ashore program fell apart. Local opposition in the regions where the government planned to install the missile sites prompted Tokyo to cancel construction.

There was just one problem. Japan already had begun paying for the radars. Now the government had a couple of huge, high-tech radars … and nothing to do with them.

The missile-defense mission hasn’t gone away. If anything, the mission is growing only more urgent as North Korea—not to mention China—continue to improve their missile capabilities. So the Japanese government pivoted.

Last year it announced it would install the SPY-7s in a pair of new missile-defense ships and sail the vessels between Japan and North Korea in order to intercept any incoming missiles.

Now that effort is foundering. The Japanese missile-defense ships are getting weird as the world changes around them.

The problem arguably began years ago when Tokyo tapped Lockheed to build its missile-defense radars. The company is fairly new to the missile-defense market. Rival firm Raytheon long has dominated the market with its iconic SPY-1 radar and a newer derivative, the SPY-6.

Yes, the Canadian and Spanish navies have bought SPY-7s for their new frigates. But most of the world’s Aegis systems on land or on warships—including around 100 U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers and eight Japanese destroyers—use SPY-1s or SPY-6s.

Japan reportedly chose Lockheed’s SPY-7 because it includes heat-resistant gallium-nitride. Officials in Tokyo originally planned to include Japanese industry in the gallium-nitride production, but eventually abandoned that plan owing to a lack of local capacity.

It’s not that the SPY-7 isn’t a capable radar. But there were local political and industrial factors in Japan’s selection of the Lockheed radar that outweighed the economies of scale that Raytheon’s own SPY-1/6 offered to the Japanese Aegis Ashore program.

Those local factors are moot now and Aegis Ashore in Japan has become Aegis Afloat. And Tokyo is stuck with two missile-defense radars that practically are orphans.

All the Japanese fleet’s most capable destroyers use SPY-1s. If and when the navy builds hulls for the SPY-7s, they’ll be two unique warships in a fleet with a growing number of vessels packing the Raytheon radars. That poses obvious logistical problems.

It’d be one thing if the Japanese government planned to build two truly unique, single-role missile-defense ships for the SPY-7s. But it doesn’t. Not any more.

The navy’s other eight Aegis destroyers with their SPY-1s are multi-role vessels. Yes, they can shoot down slower ballistic missiles, but they also function as general escorts, protecting the navy’s aircraft carriers and assault ships from enemy aircraft, ships and submarines.

They also possess powerful self-defense capabilities, meaning they don’t themselves require escort in order to perform their missions.

Early on, it seemed the SPY-7-equipped ships would be different. They would only perform missile-defense missions, and only against the North Korean threat. They would sail in tight circles just off Japan’s northern coast, scanning and waiting.

Because there was no expectation that the SPY-7 ships also would need to, say, sail into battle with the Chinese fleet, the pair of new missile-defense ships could be simpler, slower and less heavily armed than destroyers typically are.

Imagine a pair of civilian-style auxiliary ships with a SPY-7 array and launchers for missile-defense interceptors. But no armor. But no guns. No anti-ship missiles. No helicopters. And small crews.

The efficiencies resulting from a single-mission design might make up for the inefficiencies that are inevitable when you add two SPY-7s to a fleet that otherwise uses SPY-1/6s.

But that rationale evaporated as the Japanese defense ministry began to reconsider the role of the future SPY-7 vessels. “We will study the possibility of flexibly deploying them to the most operationally optimal sea areas at all times, depending on the situation,” Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said in May.

“The specific area of operation cannot be disclosed due to the risk of inferring [Japan Self-Defense Forces] operations,” Kishi added, “but in any case, we will continue to study the possibility of flexible deployment to operationally optimal areas, including the East China Sea.”

“East China Sea” in this context is code for “war with China.” China’s breakneck naval expansion has motivated Japan to accelerate its own fleet’s growth and modernization. The SPY-7 ships obviously now are part of Tokyo’s plans for deterring and defeating Beijing.

That means they can’t be civilian-style ships. They need armor, self-defense weaponry and large crews. In other words, they need to be destroyers.

That’s not a problem for Japanese industry. Tokyo’s naval shipbuilders already are manufacturing some of the biggest and most powerful destroyers in the world. But those destroyers, at present, all sail with Raytheon radars.

If Japan does indeed insist on making use of its leftover Lockheed radars and installing those radars on multi-mission destroyers, it’s going to wind up with a tiny—and expensive to support—subclass of warship.

And to think, this whole weird situation reportedly began when officials tried to make work for local industry. Weapons-development isn’t always rational.

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