In light of the growing advancement of China and Russia in producing hypersonic weapons, Japan appears to be working on remodeling its existing surface-to-air (SAM) guided missiles to strengthen its intercepting capabilities against hypersonic glide weapons.

By fiscal 2029, Tokyo plans to begin mass production of the redesigned Type-03 intermediate-range guided missiles used by the Ground Self-Defense Force, a source familiar with the matter told Kyodo News. But only after updating its launch software, which the country targets to complete by fiscal 2026.

The novelty of hypersonic weapons meant most air and missile defense capabilities across the international community are yet capable of defending against considering its speed that travels five times the speed of sound and the unpredictability of the irregular trajectories. And Japan is among these countries pushing to catch up with innovation.

Japan continues to use Standard Missile-3 interceptors as part of its missile defense system, capable of hitting incoming missiles from the outer atmosphere. It is being equipped on its Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyers, and if these missile interceptors fail to do their job, the Air Self-Defense Force’s ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors will have to step in and counter the attack in the lower tier, Kyoto News explained.

Developed in the mid-to-late 1990s to replace the aging American MIM-23 HAWK (“Homing all the way killer”) air defense missile system, the Type-03 air defense missile system has a firing range of up to 50 kilometers and can hit low-flying cruise missiles as well as fast-moving incoming projectiles at Mach 2.5. It was first put into production in 2003 and two years after was adopted by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, also called Chu-SAM. The medium-range SAM has proven to engage against aircraft, helicopters, and even unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) through the years. In later upgrades, the missile system can use digital maps for precise target route prediction.

Type 03 Chu-SAM (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The source added that revamping the Type-03 missiles will include improvements in their ability to predict and track the trajectory of hypersonic weapons and detect them using radar. Emphasis on tracking and detection. However, it needed to be clarified if Tokyo would also be working on boosting its current air and missile defense system to counter such advanced weapons amid the intensifying hypersonic tech race.

The call for technological innovations toward hypersonic weapons has been prompted not only by China’s staggering progress but also by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and North Korea’s series of ballistic missile live-fire tests in recent months—a move the US has also been working double time.

More Defense Missiles Underway

With the unrest that has been going on in its neighborhood, Japan also considers extending the range of its under-development high-speed missile that would allow it to defend its remote islands situated beyond 1,000 kilometers, including the Senkaku Islands (recognized by China as Diaoyu Dao).

With the additional upgrade, the still unnamed long-range, land-based missile will include the range of China’s coastal areas and North Korea, giving Japan a deterrence bubble against its hostile neighbors.

Like the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, Beijing and Tokyo also have a tag-of-war over the Senkakus, which the former continuously insist on having historic rights over the area. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has been using the area as its firing range since the beginning of this year, including a couple that flew over Japan last month.

According to security analysts, these growing challenges prompt the country to own longer-range missiles to maintain its stronghold capacity to protect and defend its land, air, and water territories.

The high-speed missile program began in fiscal 2018 and has been in constant improvement since then, with its current prototypes having a range of several hundred kilometers, Kyodo News reported. Mass production will soon commence next year and will probably be deployed by fiscal 2026.

Moreover, Japan raised its interest in buying the US-made Tomahawk cruise missile a month after the defense ministers of both countries met to discuss joint technological research into hypersonic weapons in September. According to government officials, the Tomahawk cruise missile’s extensive range (up to 2,500 km) will bolster its deterrence capacity.

US, Japan Joint R&D Against Hypersonic Weapons

Last September, Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada and his US counterpart Lloyd J. Austin sat down in the Pentagon to discuss strategies, as well as expanding cooperation between the two nations on countering hypersonic equipment and technology that has been on the rise in recent years. By the end of the meeting, both defense ministers agreed on a joint research program which will also include development and use of drones, strengthening supply chains, and cooperation on cybersecurity,” as Eurasian Times reported.

Moreover, Austin reassured its counterpart Washington’s continuous protection over Japan against other threats such as nuclear capabilities.

Japan currently uses the Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyers as the main carriers of its Standard Missile-3 interceptors, while ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors serve as a plan b in case the initial interceptors fail to counter missile attacks.

JS Myōkō
JS Myōkō, a Kongō-class guided missile destroyer equipped with Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

In a separate article, Eurasian Times said that besides the upgrade, Tokyo also “plans to add two more Aegis-equipped warships” to boost its fleet of eight amid the rising tension in the region.