TOKYO — Japan's likely adoption of the advanced Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) system will greatly improve its combat capabilities and ability to operate with US forces.
The possibility of acquiring NIFC-CA seemed certain following a statement to that effect by Defense Minister Gen Nakatani during a debate in Japan's Diet. Nakatani revealed during a question-and-answer session June 29 in the House of Representatives that Japan was now "studying" adopting NIFC-CA to counter China's CJ-10 Long Sword cruise missile, which has become a major concern to Japan, particularly when launched from the Xian H-6 version of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 bomber.
"For the sake of protecting people's lives and property … we must consider the adoption of the latest US technology, such as NIFC-CA," Nakatani said.
The revelation followed a comment made June 26 by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a Diet question-and-answer session that Japan must network its small but growing fleet of Aegis missile cruisers with each other and the US Navy.
NIFC-CA is based on the US Navy's cooperative engagement capability (CEC) network, which utilizes datalinks to transmit targeting information between the E-2D Hawkeye airborne warning and control aircraft and Navy Aegis-equipped ships carrying SM-6 missiles. This enables Aegis ships to conduct air defense at the same time as strategic ballistic missile defense (BMD) missions.
Such a capability would be used by the two new Atago-class Aegis cruisers on order, which will automatically come with the latest baseline 9 specification enabling NIFC-CA. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) currently has six Aegis ships.
"NIFC-CA and CEC are absolutely necessary 'killer apps' for the Japanese Self-Defense Force to enhance its ability to operate in a high-threat scenario involving China, and to do so in more effective concert with US forces, especially the US Navy," said Matthew Caris, an associate at Avascent Group, a Washington-based defense and aerospace consulting group.
Caris said baseline 9 was especially important because Japan does not have enough vessels to assign individual ships to a BMD mission. In wartime, the JMSDF may be stretched if key fleet units are held back for the BMD mission to protect the home islands.
The value of NIFC-CA becomes more evident when placed in the context of the US Asian pivot, specifically the forward deployment of the recently upgraded NIFC-CA capable USS Chancellorsville (CG-62), billed by Capt. Curt Renshaw, in a June 18 news conference at the Yokosuka Naval Base, as the most powerful cruiser in the world.
Renshaw said the Chancellorsville in general and NIFC-CA in particular represented a "tremendous improvement" that was capable of dealing with "modern challenges," a veiled reference to China's cruise missile threat. The USS Ronald Reagan, the US Navy's newest aircraft carrier, will arrive at Yokosuka later this year.
Corey Wallace, a security policy analyst at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universität, Berlin, said it would make no sense for Japan to purchase two new Aegis-equipped destroyers with upgraded CEC capabilities, the F-35A and the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and not make use of NIFC-CA's integration capabilities.
"Even just for Japan's own defense it would be a significant development for Japan to buy into the system, and obviously it would greatly enhance the operation and regional power projection of the alliance," Wallace said.
The announcement is not surprising given the tone and language of the US-Japan Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee, issued by both governments April 17, which identifies the strategic importance of Japan deploying the most modern and advanced US capabilities, said Guy Stitt, president of AMI International Naval Analysts & Advisors.
Nakatani's announcement also follows some key decisions and contracts, including the awarding of a contract in May to Lockheed Martin to upgrade two Atago-class cruisers from their current baseline 7 to baseline 9, which indicates that the NIFC-CA upgrade, while still not officially announced, is a done deal.
"Additionally, with Japan's commitment to … the F-35A, and the very recent contract to Northrop Grumman for E-2D Advanced Hawkeye ISR aircraft, these system solutions align perfectly for NIFC-CA. This is a significant contribution to the US Pacific pivot," Stitt said.
However, adoption of NIFC-CA raises important questions about collective self-defense (CSD) issues because of the level of automation involved in the defensive network, said Nobuyuki Nose, a defense analyst at Fuji TV and a leading Japanese BMD expert.
The Japanese Diet is locked in contentious discussions about what sort of restrictions to apply to CSD. CSD itself has, at best, lukewarm support from the general public. And in a major embarrassment to Abe's attempts to push through legislation to enable CSD, a Lower House Commission on the Constitution headed by three highly respected senior legal experts stated that the CSD provisions as promoted by the Abe administration are unconstitutional.
Furthermore, under paragraph 2 of Japan's US-written 1947 "peace" constitution, going to war to help a friendly nation was a violation of Article 9, which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes involving the state.
"According to this definition of the constitution, it is impossible for the MSDF [Maritime Self Defense Force] to defend US ships before Japan itself is attacked. Yet NIFC-CA's automatic targeting system might require the MSDF to fire. It's a very hard question as to how Japan is going to handle this," Nose said.
"The collective defense implications are tremendous," Caris said.
"Once Japanese forces are integrated into US battle networks, they become critical 'nodes' of any operational plan. US commanders may start to count on having certain numbers of Japanese assets available for the BMD mission or to serve as part of a US Navy task force. In any sort of US/China confrontation, those expectations and US pressure could limit Japanese freedom of action," he said.