On January 5, the Morning Edition of The Nikkei newspaper ran an article entitled “Next-generation Technologies to Inhibit China: Railguns That Can Intercept Hypersonic Weapons” on the top of the front page. It read:
The MOD plans to bring railgun technology into practical use by the second half of the 2020s. Railguns use electromagnetic force, similar to a linear motor train, to launch projectiles. The FY2022 draft budget included 6.5 billion yen as expenses to create a prototype that approaches the level of practical use.
Because railguns are faster than gunpowder-burning missiles, they can theoretically be fired continuously at lower costs. While regular missiles have an initial velocity of 1,700 meters per second, railguns have reached nearly 2,300 meters per second in the development stage.
These actions are influenced by hypersonic weapons, which are five times faster than the speed of sound and have the ability to change trajectories. They are more difficult to intercept than traditional ballistic missiles that travel on a parabola, making their course easy to predict. China, Russia, and North Korea are already developing these weapons.
It is also not easy to guard against existing missiles if several are launched at once. The MOD has determined there are limitations with the current structure in which it uses missiles to shoot down other missiles.
It will create a defense structure in three phases: 1) Enhancing current systems, 2) Railguns, and 3) Long-range missiles for counterattacks from far-away positions. It will also consider building a small satellite network to increase its ability to detect enemy missiles.
The MOD will also consider possessing long-range missiles that can be used to strike enemy bases in the event of an attack, with the aim of dissuading attacks by means other than interception.
The Nikkei Morning Edition also published a column about railguns on the same day:
Linear motor technology also utilizes electric power and magnetic force to move objects: an electric current through a coil creates a magnetic force, and the magnet’s repellent force moves the train car. Railguns use a different mechanism in which the electric current through the magnetic field makes the object move.
The MOD will research railguns as a next-generation technology to intercept hypersonic missiles under development in China, North Korea, and Russia. Compared to hypersonic weapons that are five times the speed of sound, railguns have a speed of over 2,000 meters per second, nearly six times the speed of sound. They must adjust rail placement to strengthen the magnetic field inside the gun, and select metal materials that are highly conductive and durable.
Coincidentally, on June 6 NHK NEWS WEB posted an article titled “North Korean Newspaper Reports Missile Test on January 5.”
On January 6, the Rodong Sinmun (the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea) reported on its second page that the Academy of National Defense Science conducted a hypersonic missile test on January 5.
The newspaper printed one photograph of the pointed missile shooting out orange flames while rising from a movable launch pad. It read, “The missile separated after launch and accurately struck the target 700 kilometers away.”
It also emphasized, “This has strategic significance because it is a successful execution of the most important core project among the five ‘priority projects’ in the strategic weapons category of the five-year plan for national defense.”
The test was attended by leaders of the party’s munitions industry and national defense science divisions.
The South Korean military announced that North Korea launched one projectile, believed to be a ballistic missile, from Chagang Province in the northern part of the country on the morning of January 5 towards the Sea of Japan. It is thought the North Korean announcement refers to this missile.
This is North Korea’s second announcement about a hypersonic missile test. The first was its September 2021 launch of the Hwasong-8 hypersonic missile, which was also newly developed in Chagang.
According to the Defense of Japan white paper, hypersonic weapons can fly at hypersonic speed above Mach 5, which is five times the speed of sound. In addition, they are unique because they can fly for a long time on a low trajectory while changing their course. This makes them more difficult to detect and intercept. The United States, China, Russia, and other countries are developing these weapons.
North Korea mentioned hypersonic weapon development in its five-year defense plan presented at the Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January 2021.
Last September, North Korea announced it had tested a hypersonic missile for the first time with the newly developed Hwasong-8. It emphasized that these missiles would have great strategic importance for enhancing its national defense capabilities in all spheres. Involved countries have remained continuously vigilant.
Both articles discuss the threat of hypersonic weapons. There are two types: hypersonic glide missiles and hypersonic cruise missiles. The former is carried by a ballistic missile. Only the warhead portion is a “glider” that continuously glides at hypersonic speed throughout the upper atmosphere. The latter uses a newly designed jet engine – which is different from traditional engines like the scramjet – to cruise at hypersonic speed. North Korea’s January 5 launch was of a hypersonic glide missile. According to the announcement it conducted horizontal turns, known as “cross-range maneuvers,” which ballistic missiles are not capable of.
I have repeatedly written about railguns in my essays published in Apple Town over the past six years. In my June 2016 essay, I excerpted part of an article from the January 2016 issue of THEMIS magazine, titled “U.S. Could Destroy Chinese Military Cities With New Destroyers.” I pointed out that the Japanese MOD has set forth a budget for researching and developing railguns since the early 1990s, and has placed R&D orders to seven companies including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Japan Steel Works has already achieved a steel manufacturing technology that can withstand the impacts of electromagnetic waves. I concluded, “Japan possesses the world’s most advanced railgun technologies.” According to the articles I referred to, this has finally been openly announced. Railguns are the only way to intercept missiles that can turn at hypersonic speed, in contrast to ballistic missiles, which fly on trajectories that are simple to predict. Rapid firing is also possible with railguns. It seems an official announcement has been made about Japan’s railgun development now that the changing circumstances have become clear.
On January 5, The Nikkei printed an article entitled “U.S. Considers Stricter Conditions on Using Nuclear Weapons, Limited to Counterattacks: Room for Discretion, Disarmament Policy to be Announced This Month.”
In the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), its new guidelines, the American government will indicate specific policy for nuclear disarmament. Biden has inherited the “world without nuclear weapons” philosophy from the era of President Barack Obama, when Biden served as vice president.
The changed conditions for using nuclear weapons are the focal points of this NPR. The current policy states that the U.S. “will only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”
The U.S. does not deny the possibility of using nuclear weapons for a counterstrike after an attack with biological or chemical weapons (which are also defined as weapons of mass destruction), or a large-scale attack with conventional weapons. Some interpret this to mean that the U.S. could use nuclear weapons to retaliate after a cyberattack. It is thought this leaves room for nuclear weapon use in a wide range of scenarios.
In the review process, the Biden administration has started making arrangements with its allies as it plans not to adopt the policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, which is the strictest rule. Two people who are knowledgeable about the NPR process have revealed this information.
“No first use” is a public promise and clear stipulation that a country will only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack. Liberal members of the ruling Democratic Party, as well as organizations calling for nuclear disarmament, are encouraging the government to adopt this policy.
Instead, the Biden administration is considering a “sole purpose” policy. The term “sole purpose” is used in global discussions about disarmament, and the usual interpretation is that the purpose of owning nuclear weapons is limited to deterring nuclear attacks by enemies. With this concept, a country can use nuclear weapons after a nuclear attack, but it leaves room for discretion, since there is no fixed definition of “sole purpose.”
If the “sole purpose” policy is adopted, it will be even more difficult for the U.S. to use nuclear weapons to respond to an attack with biological or chemical weapons, or a large-scale conventional weapon attack. If a nuclear attack is sensed in advance, some interpret “sole purpose” as allowing for the use of nuclear weapons to obstruct the attack. However, it does seem that “first use” will also become more challenging.
Most of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states do not endorse the “sole purpose” policy – in which nuclear weapons are only used in the event of a nuclear strike – under consideration by the Biden government. This is because such a policy would weaken deterrence against Russia. According to the article, the same is true of Asian countries that are American allies, such as Japan. There is anxiety about decreased deterrence in terms of China, which will have 1,000 nuclear warheads in 2030, and North Korea, which is also developing biological and chemical weapons in addition to nuclear weapons. Accordingly, “The American government is considering these concerns felt by its allies. Regarding the ‘sole purpose’ policy, it presented to allies a draft that includes ‘existential threat’ as a condition for the use of nuclear weapons.” However, in that case it would be hard to distinguish between the old and new policies. The U.S. Armed Forces wants to preserve the option of using nuclear weapons, and there is no single consensus in the U.S. on this topic. The article concludes by saying, “The Biden administration plans to deliberately consider the pros and cons of ‘sole purpose.’”
People in Japan do not support research and development on nuclear weapons, even if it is to provide deterrence. Since China and North Korea possess nuclear weapons, our only choices are to depend on the U.S. for deterrence or to possess self-defense and deterrence capabilities other than nuclear weapons. However, the U.S. is working to curtail its own nuclear deterrence. To compensate for this, Japan must have its own unique means of deterrence. As discussed in the first Nikkei article I mentioned, the ability to strike enemy bases with long-range missiles would accomplish deterrence, and I think that is the most pragmatic option. Railguns, which can be rapidly fired at low costs, are the most realistic way to have defense capabilities. In addition to North Korea, China and Russia are also steadily developing and deploying hypersonic weapons. Japan should oppose this by promptly developing railguns and gaining the ability to strike enemy bases. Japan must continually enhance its ability to deter wars and maintain peace founded on a balance of power.
January 18 (Tuesday), 6:00 p.m.