Japan may consider first-strike alternative to Aegis Ashore by October-NHK

TOKYO, June 25 (Reuters) - Japan’s National Security Council may pick a replacement for the Aegis Ashore missile-defence system by October, according to public broadcaster NHK, and the country’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has suggested one option could be a first-strike weapon.

The surprise decision this month by Defence Minister Taro Kono to suspend Aegis Ashore has reignited a discussion in government and local media about whether Japan should obtain the capability to attack enemy bases to stop North Korean ballistic missiles and counter a growing threat from China’s military in East Asia.

The government is concerned about Aegis Ashore’s cost, and the possibility of spent booster rockets falling into populated areas.

Before Japan picked the missile-defence system in 2018, ruling party lawmakers agreed that attacking missile bases didn’t contravene the country’s war-renouncing constitution because doing so would be an act of defence.

That conclusion prompted a decision to buy 1,000-kilometre (621 mile) range air-launched cruise missiles that could hit North Korea from the Sea of Japan. But it would be difficult to use such missiles to hit mobile launchers without satellite targeting capability, experts say.

Any first-strike policy would represent a fundamental and controversial shift in military posture that could spur concern among Japan’s neighbours. The United States, Japan’s key ally, has also had reservations about Tokyo gaining an independent strike capability.

Other alternatives to Aegis Ashore could include increasing the number of airborne early warning aircraft or deploying drones that could monitor missiles sites and attack if a launch were judged to be imminent.

Without an Aegis Ashore substitute, Japan would have to rely more on Aegis radar-equipped ships that patrol the Sea of Japan and Patriot missile batteries that are a last line of defence against incoming warheads.

Keeping even two Aegis ships permanently on patrol, however, requires several vessels and hundreds of sailors that Japan’s stretched navy might need elsewhere.

Kono will speak at a news conference in Tokyo starting at 0700 GMT.

The former foreign minister, who has a reputation as a maverick, has called for phasing out nuclear power, a stance at odds with government energy policy, and has advocated for a looser immigration policy.

Until recently Kono has been seen as something of a dark horse in the race to succeed Abe, but in a Mainichi newspaper poll after his Aegis Ashore decision, he ranked third among voters as preferred next premier. ($1 = 107.4500 yen) (Reporting by Tim Kelly, additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Gerry Doyle)