TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is to consider the acquisition of weapons able to strike enemy missile launchers to bolster defence against North Korea after a decision to cancel the Aegis Ashore missile defence system, the defence minister said on Thursday.
Any first-strike capability would represent a fundamental shift in Japan's military posture that could raise the concern of neighbours. The United States, Japan's main ally, has also had reservations about it gaining an independent strike capability.
The minister, Taro Kono, reignited debate this month over whether Japan should get the capability to strike enemy bases to stop North Korean ballistic missiles attacks and counter a perceived growing threat from China when he suspended deployment of two Aegis Ashore installations.
"I don't think we are excluding any option before discussions," Taro Kono told a news conference when asked whether a strike capability would be on the agenda of the National Security Council when it considers options.
Kono's surprise decision to cancel the Aegis Ashore system came after concern about its cost and the possibility of spent booster rockets falling into populated areas.
But even before Japan picked the missile-defence system in 2018, ruling party lawmakers had agreed that attacking missile bases did not contravene Japan's war-renouncing constitution because doing so would be an act of defence.
That conclusion prompted a decision to buy 1,000-km (621 mile) range air-launched cruise missiles that could hit North Korea from over the Sea of Japan.
But it would be difficult to use such missiles to hit mobile launchers without satellite targeting capability, which Japan does not have, experts say.
Kono said Japan would need to clearly define what it meant by a pre-emptive, or first, strike before considering whether it was a viable option.
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 was seen as 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.
Keeping even two Aegis ships permanently on patrol, however, requires several vessels and hundreds of sailors.
Kono, a former foreign minister, also described recent Chinese activity in the disputed South China Sea and elsewhere in Asia as "alarming".
He also said he was "suspicious" about the state of health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following recent speculation he was not well. He did not elaborate.
Until recently, Kono has been seen as something of a dark horse in the race to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but in a Mainichi newspaper poll after his Aegis Ashore decision, he ranked third among voters as preferred next premier.
He has called for phasing out nuclear power, a stance at odds with government policy, and has advocated for a looser immigration policy.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Jason Neely, Robert Birsel)
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