In record budget, Japan's military seeks funds to boost missile ranges and speed

A Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) soldier takes part in a drill to mobilise their Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile unit in response to a recent missile launch by North Korea.

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan's defence ministry on Thursday (Aug 31) sought US$160 million (S$217 million) in a record budget request to develop swift, longer-range missiles to extend its military punch in East Asia, countering growing Chinese strength and an increasing North Korean threat.

If approved, the proposal for a rise of 2.5 per cent in defence spending to 5.26 trillion yen for the year starting April 1, will be the sixth straight annual increase as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bolsters the military.

The funds will pay for ballistic missile defence upgrades, six F-35 stealth fighters, four V-22 Osprey tilt rotor troop carriers, besides orders for new naval vessels, including a submarine and two compact warships.

Around US$90 million of the requested missile development funds of US$160 million will go on studying hypersonic missiles to quickly penetrate enemy defences.

The rest will pay for research on extending missile range, technology that could potentially be used to help develop strike weapons.

"The research and development is for island defence," a Ministry of Defence official told a briefing, referring to the southwestern Okinawa island chain skirting the East China Sea, where Japan is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China.

The funding for missile development, though relatively small, could nonetheless spark controversy, since Japan's war-renouncing constitution imposes restrictions on strike weapons for the military.

Some lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) argue that Japan needs weapons able to strike North Korean missile sites, so as to deter attacks by Pyongyang.

The longest range missiles in Japan's arsenal, which includes anti-aircraft and anti-ship munitions, have ranges of less than 300km.

A group of LDP lawmakers that recommended Japan acquire strike weapons was led by Minister of Defence Itsunori Onodera before he took up his post in August.

But such a proposed shift in military strategy would face stiff political opposition from critics in Japan who say Mr Abe's hawkish policies have gone too far, hurting his already soggy popularity.

"Striking enemy bases after an attack to stop subsequent launches would seem like a natural thing to do, but that would be difficult for people in Japan to accept under the current constitution," an LDP lawmaker said, asking not to be identified because he was not authorised to talk to the media.

The proposed defence budget will face scrutiny by Ministry of Finance officials who may seek to rein in military outlays as they juggle demands for higher spending on health and welfare for Japan's ageing population.

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