Japan has ditched plans to deploy an Aegis Ashore land-based missile interception system as a shield against high-tech projectiles such as those launched by North Korea, Defense Minister Taro Kono said Thursday.
"After deliberations at the NSC, we have come to the decision to cancel the deployment in Yamaguchi and Akita prefectures," Kono told a panel of ruling party lawmakers, referring to Wednesday's closed-door meeting of the National Security Council chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The decision followed Kono's abrupt announcement on June 15 that it had halted the process of deploying two U.S.-made batteries of the missile system, citing technical problems and increasing costs amid strong local opposition.
At a meeting of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, part of which was open to the media, Kono also said the Defense Ministry found it difficult to pick alternate sites.
While Japan will continue to defend itself from the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles via existing Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis-equipped destroyers, Kono said it is a bad idea to rely solely on these.
Bearing in mind Beijing and Pyongyang's development of new ballistic missiles, which seem harder to intercept, the minister said Japan has to "consider what we will do (to respond to such threats) over the medium to long term."
Kono also said the MSDF destroyers and land-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 system -- designed to shoot down missiles that evaded interceptors fired from the ships -- will protect the nation "for the time being."
The Aegis Ashore units were to supplement the MSDF destroyers, with one candidate site in the northeastern prefecture of Akita and the other in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi, both near the Sea of Japan coast.
Later in the day, Kono told reporters the government will continue to discuss defense needs with ruling parties and the United States, in addition to talks at the NSC.
However, Kono did not give a clear answer when asked if the ministry will explore the possibility of striking foreign bases, an idea proposed by some LDP members that has proved contentious given Japan's war-renouncing Constitution.
"I'm relieved that anxiety among local residents has faded," Akita Gov. Norihisa Satake told reporters, adding Kono told him by telephone in the morning that central government "will not deploy hereafter" Aegis Ashore units in Japan.
"But, I wonder what this two and a half years (since the Cabinet approval to deploy the batteries) were for," Satake said.
Meanwhile, Yamaguchi Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka told reporters he is "grateful" for the government's "quick decision".
In December 2017, Japan decided to install two Aegis Ashore batteries after a series of ballistic missiles launched by North Korea, and U.S. President Donald Trump's push to sell more military equipment under the "Buy American" policy. The deployment was expected to begin in fiscal 2025 at the earliest.
Tokyo and Washington have already signed a contract worth around 180 billion yen ($1.7 billion) related to the introduction of the Aegis Ashore system, of which Japan has paid 12.5 billion yen, according to the Defense Ministry.
Kono has said the purchase of the units, combined with 30-year operational and maintenance costs, runs to an estimated 450 billion yen, and that the government will seek talks with the United States over the outstanding balance.
The Defense Ministry had been under fire since June last year when it was found to have conducted an erroneous geographical survey in selecting Akita's Araya district as a candidate site for an Aegis Ashore battery.
Kono said it had became difficult to fulfill its promise to ensure the rocket booster of an interceptor missile would land only in an SDF training area or the sea, unless the hardware is modified, when he announced the suspension of the deployment.
The deployment plan had been unpopular with local residents concerned about the health effects of electromagnetic waves emitted by the system's radar, as well as the possibility of their communities being targeted in an armed conflict.