Japan to upgrade new missile to target aircraft carriers, as it steps up East China Sea island defences

Julian Ryall

The Japanese military is planning to upgrade a next-generation missile to give it the ability to target an aircraft carrier, an enhancement that would be a clear shot across China’s bow in the ongoing dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

Citing sources in the Japanese Ministry of Defence, the Mainichi newspaper said discussions are under way to improve the anti-shipping capabilities of the hyper velocity gliding projectile (HVGP), which is currently being developed and is due to be put into operational service as early as 2026.

First announced in late 2018, the weapon is designed to be launched from a rocket in the upper atmosphere and glide towards its target at a very high speed. It is manoeuvred via GPS, making it more difficult to intercept than a conventional missile.

A Japan Coast Guard vessel sails in front of one of the disputed islands, named Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Photo: Reuters

The weapon could be used against an island that has been invaded and occupied by an enemy force, the ministry said, although it was careful not to identify any potential hostile force.

The ministry is now planning to fit HVGPs with an alternative payload specifically devised to punch through the deck of an aircraft carrier. The upgraded version would also have a better range and maximum speed, as well as more advanced trajectory capabilities.

China launched the Shandong, its first domestically developed aircraft carrier, last year. Another carrier, the Liaoning, was bought from Russia and became operational in 2012. Beijing reportedly intends to build at least two more aircraft carriers as it looks to further develop its navy’s blue water capabilities.

“It seems very much as if the Japanese are taking a page out of China’s playbook with this missile,” said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University.

“China has developed its hypersonic ‘carrier killer’ missile as part of its Anti-Access Area-Denial strategy to keep US carrier groups beyond the first island chain and we know that the US is doing something quite similar, and now the Japanese are following suit,” he said.

China's first home-made aircraft carrier Shandong, named after Shandong Province in east China, was launched in December 2019 at the naval port in Sanya, Hainan province. Photo: Handout

The new weapon is a development that is “clearly aimed at China” as Tokyo still fears that Beijing covets the Japanese-controlled islands that are known as the Diaoyu in China but are marked on Japanese maps as the Senkaku archipelago.

Tensions between the two nations have cooled in recent months, but there remains the risk of an accidental clash close to the disputed territories as Chinese government ships continue to enter Japanese territorial waters around the islands.

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“In the lead-up to President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Japan in April, Japan has been sending the same consistent message that it wants Chinese ships to stop penetrating Japanese waters around those islands,” said Nagy.

“The message is that if China wants a better and more stable relationship with Japan, then Beijing needs to decrease its provocative behaviour,” he said.

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“And this information on these new missiles is also part of that message. It shows that Tokyo is not only upping the pressure through words, but also through an enhanced military capability.”

The Japanese government earmarked 18.5 billion yen (US$167.6 million) to the missile project in previous budgets but will add a further 25 billion yen (US$226.6 million) to the development under the 2020 budget.

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