TOKYO - Sources here confirmed that Japan is actively considering allowing the export of SM-3 Block IIA missiles to third-party countries following repeated requests by the U.S. government that the next-generation missile defense system, which is being co-developed by Japan and the U.S., be made available to protect other U.S. allies.
In an official comment by the Ministry of Defense (MOD), a spokesman said the issue is "under careful consideration" between the two governments, but the MOD had not yet reached a conclusion on the issue.
However, a senior official confirmed May 27 that the Japanese government is actively considering how to relax the export ahead of two-plus-two security talks in June by U.S. and Japanese defense and foreign ministers.
"Yes, the MOD's Policy Division is considering the issue," the official said.
The move is politically sensitive for both sides as Japan has strict regulations on arms exports, and the U.S. is keen that the advanced, next-generation Block IIA missiles, which are much more capable than the current SM-3 missiles, be available to allies.
In 1967, Japan introduced laws banning the export of weapons to communist bloc countries, countries subject to U.N. arms embargoes, or countries involved in or likely to become involved in international conflicts. In 1976, it extended the ban to weapons-related technology, although this was later relaxed in 1983 to allow export to the U.S. only. In a 2005 agreement, Japan further relaxed the law to include missile interceptors to be deployed by the two countries. However, re-export to third countries of the SM-3 Block IIA would still be banned unless Japan changes its position.
According to the MOD, Japan is spending 47.3 billion yen (U.S. $583.9 million) this fiscal year on development of the missiles, which will have a burnout velocity that is 45 percent to 60 percent greater than that of the Block IA and IB versions, as well as a larger-diameter kinetic warhead. This year, as part of the final phase of the development, prototype missiles will be designed and manufactured for use in a sea-launched missile experiment, according to the MOD documents.
Under the Obama administration's European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) for European ballistic missile defense (BMD) operations, the more advanced SM-3 Block IIA missiles would be placed on BMD-capable Aegis ships and would operate in European waters to defend Europe from potential ballistic missile attacks from countries such as Iran.
In September 2009, the U.S. government said it would deploy SM-3 Block IIA missiles by 2018 in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
Keidanren, Japan's most powerful industrial lobby that has been exerting pressure on the government for decades to allow the export of Japanese defense and space equipment, supports the impending change, said Satoshi Tsuzukibashi, director of Keidanren's Office of Defense Production Committee. "Yes, we support the relaxation of export rules in principal, as long as the exports remain carefully controlled to trusted allies," he said.
Japan is supposed to reach a decision on the issue by the end of 2011, according to a statement released by Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa in January.
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo declined comment on the issue except to say that missile defense cooperation was a "central element" in the U.S.'s bilateral defense relationship with Japan.