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Better Too Soon than Too Late – Japan to Buy Tomahawk Missiles Ahead of Schedule

What is happening?

Japan is about to buy American Tomahawk cruise missiles one year ahead of schedule. Originally, the Japanese government planned to purchase up to 400 Block V Tomahawk missiles in fiscal year 2026 and into the following year. Still, Tokyo decided to speed up the process, swap out up to half the missiles with older Block IV Tomahawk missiles, and begin the purchase in 2025. Tokyo did not explicitly specify its motivation behind this decision, but it is clear that recent actions of China, Russia, and North Korea do not leave Japan with time to spare. 

 

What is the broader picture?

On October 4, Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara met with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The meeting occurred during Kihara’s first trip to the United States as the Minister of Defense. He assumed the position in September, replacing Yasukazu Hamada after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida decided to shuffle his Cabinet and critical party posts to strengthen his position before a key party leadership vote next year

Kihara said that the expedited procurement of missiles was a part of the plan to increase Japan’s counterattack capability. Austin spoke about the shared challenges, including China’s coercive behavior, North Korea’s dangerous provocations, and Russia’s reckless war against Ukraine. He also said, “America’s Article Five treaty commitment to the defense of Japan remains ironclad, and it covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.”    

Increasing Japan’s military capabilities is a shared ambition of Tokyo and Washington. For the U.S., it is part of the Indo-Pacific strategy to counterbalance China’s military rise. At the same time, for Japan, it is crucial for deterring China and North Korea and increasing its ability to defend itself. Japan is prepared to spend 2 billion USD on Tomahawk missiles and approximately 38 billion USD on improving its overall military capabilities. 

The acquisition of Tomahawk missiles is an essential milestone in Japan’s pacifist development after World War II. Prime Minister Kishida said, “This is the first time in decades that Japan is accruing offensive capabilities,” but he added that this can still be viewed as self-defense. Tomahawk missiles can be helpful for Japan given that it is an island nation. The missiles have a long range of over 1,600 km and travel at low altitudes and subsonic speed, which makes them hard to detect by radars. 

 

Why it matters?

Tokyo did not explicitly specify why Japan decided to accelerate the process of acquiring Tomahawk missiles, but there are several reasons for Japan to be concerned. The Sino-Russian “no limits friendship” declared shortly before the Russian full-scale invasion in Ukraine projects itself in the Indo-Pacific region, e.g., in the form of China’s joint patrols with Russia around Japan. China also increased incursions around uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which are administrated by Japan but claimed by China. With growing tensions around Taiwan, the security of the closely-located Senkaku Islands is also being questioned. According to the Japanese coast guard, four Chinese government ships entered Japanese territorial waters near the disputed islands on September 15, marking the 23rd Chinese incursion this year.