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Japan Sends Patriot Missiles Instead of a Golf Club

The export to the US of Patriot missiles made under US license shows Japan is getting over its defense allergy, but it still must do more to defend itself.



Patriot surface-to-air guided missiles (PAC3) are deployed at the Air Self-Defense Force Miyakojima Base. Photo of November 22 (© Kyodo)

Japan recently announced that it will transfer some number – reportedly "dozens"– of license-built Patriot missiles to the United States. This is to bolster American missile stocks depleted by two years of supplying Ukraine in its defense against the Russian invasion.

It is the first time Japan will export military weaponry owing to longstanding – though informal – policy restrictions. 

The announcement makes for a good headline. And some analysts view it as a significant step and a sign Japan is stepping up to its global security responsibilities.   

But, on closer look, it seems more smoke-and-mirrors, intended to keep the Americans in the Asia-Pacific and on the hook to defend Japan (and Taiwan). And from shifting more resources and attention to Europe and the Middle East. I'll explain.

The Missiles

The news Japan would hand over Patriot missiles raised some eyebrows among people who follow Japan's defense.  

One wasn't aware that the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) was flush with extra Patriot missiles for its own batteries.

In fact, JSDF arsenals and magazines are believed to have inadequate stocks of missiles, artillery shells, bombs, and ammunition, not at all enough of what's needed to fight a war.  


So it's puzzling that Japan will provide the Americans with Patriot missiles when they don't have enough for themselves.  

The reports mention "dozens" of missiles to be transferred to the US.

Dozens? The number will probably turn out to be even fewer.  Say, 30 or 40 missiles?  

Unless these missiles have magic properties, this isn't enough to make up for the American missile shortfall.

It's mentioned that Japan will step up missile production.  But this will take some time and one fairly doubts the output will be sufficient to make a difference for the Americans – or even the JSDF.  

A Surface-to-air guided missile Patriot (PAC3) is deployed at the Air Self-Defense Force Miyakojima in preparation for North Korea's launch of a military reconnaissance satellite on May 5 (©Kyodo)

A Political Move?

This all seems like a political move. One observer calls it "virtue signaling." It's intended to demonstrate Japan's support for the overstretched United States which is heavily engaged with Ukraine and also supplying Israel with armaments.

In return, the American commitment to defend Japan is "solidified." 

Viewed this way, it's a strategic investment. Japan supplies a small number of missiles – and gets potentially the full weight of available US military support in return when the time comes to deal with China. And possibly with North Korea and Russia.

Meanwhile, Team Biden can point to Japanese backing for the administration's policy towards Ukraine at a time when a number of European and some other countries – not to mention US legislators – are hesitant or opposed to future support for Kyiv.

The Ground Self-Defense Forces fire a 155mm howitzer FH70 during the Fuji General Firepower Exercise, August 25, 2019, in Shizuoka Prefecture. Japan also just sent 155 mm shells to the UK.(©Sankei by Yosuke Hayasaka)

Is this Really a Sea Change for Japan?

An optimist might point out that Japan's willingness to export missiles (lethal weapons) made under US license to the United States shows that Japan is getting over its allergy to national defense.

Yes, it is progress in the sense that it has never been done before.

But one has the feeling Tokyo is looking to do just enough – or even a little less.

Despite plans to double defense spending, having revised key defense guidelines, and ordering some longish-range attack missiles, Japan still isn't taking enough of the concrete steps necessary to improve its defenses. And sending along a handful of missiles to the United States doesn't change this reality. 

The JSDF, the Japanese government, and the public are not ready to fight a war.

Indeed, Tokyo's agreement on Patriot missiles brings to mind then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe giving President-elect Donald Trump an expensive golf club as a gift. One needn't be a total cynic to suggest the Japanese wanted to put Mr Trump in a good mood so he didn't ask or demand Japan to do more defense-wise. It by and large worked.

A small number of Patriot missiles may be intended to have the same effect as the Abe-Trump golf club.

Isao Aoki (left) and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe watch U.S. President Donald Trump hit a tee shot on May 26, 2019, at Mobara Country Club in Chiba. (PUBLIC DOMAIN )

But Aren't You Being Overly Harsh Newsham?  

After all, Japan is making progress and finally exporting lethal weapons (sort of).   

That''s true. But it needed to do this – and start other defense improvements ten years ago. 

Japan doesn't have time to dither. And it isn't moving anywhere near fast enough.  


Excuses are easier and still the coin of the realm in Tokyo.  "Too hard," "too expensive," "politically difficult," "the Constitution won't allow it."

But Japan has always been willing to reinterpret laws and the Constitution and modify unwritten policies restricting defense activities. and do what is necessary when it thinks it must.  

The Americans haven't given them a reason to think they must. And it appears Japan's enemies still haven't either.

When it comes to defense, "Japan is serious about getting serious."  But not much beyond that.

Sending a few Patriot missiles is not serious.


Author: Grant Newsham
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

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