Reports state that Japan is looking to further militarize Ishigaki-Jima with both surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles. Ishigaki Island is just 100 miles east of Taiwan and about 100 miles south of the highly disputed Senkaku Islands, putting it in a volatile yet strategic geographic position.
Such a move will surely infuriate China who is in a near violent stalemate over their claims on the Senkaku Islands, as well as projecting their power out into East China Sea as of late. In fact, Japan’s potential arming of its most westerly islands with such weaponry takes a play right out of China’s strategy book as of late and sets up an area denial/anti access scenario for Chinese expeditionary power to overcome should the chilly relations between the countries burst into flames.
Japan has various types of surface-to-air systems, including the American MIM-104 Patriot, both in the guise of the PAC-2 and ballistic missile swatting PAC-3 configuration. While the PAC-3 could protect the islands from Chinese ballistic missiles, the PAC-2 can reach out 50 miles to take down air-breathing threats.
When it comes to anti-ship missiles, Japan utilizes the Type 88 (also known as the SSM-1) surface-to-ship missile. The system is built around a truck-mounted transporter erector launcher that packs six missiles each. Each Type 88 packs nearly 500lbs of high explosives and the missile has a range just shy of 100 miles. Similar to the American Harpoon, the Type 88 has been adapted for use by air and sea platforms as well, and although it is definitely aging, it still offers a robust solution for taking out medium and low-tier surface threats well over the horizon.
A total upgrade of the Type 88 missile, known as the Type 12, will be operational within the year. The Type 12 will include an inertial navigation system with embedded GPS as well as enhanced contour/terrain matching and target discrimination capabilities (probably via an infrared sensor for terminal homing and targeting identification). Like many modern anti-ship missiles, the Type 12 will be a ‘networked’ weapon, where initial and mid-course targeting can be provided by third-party platforms such as maritime patrol aircraft, ships and helicopters.
All of these improvements make this new missile much more effective and versatile, and with an enhanced range of 124 miles, it will put Chinese ships and landing craft making a move on the Senkaku Islands within striking range.
Japan has already installed similar capabilities farther east along the country’s southwestern island chain. Yet this far-forward deployed persistent anti-ship capability, along with air defenses that can defend it, as well as Japan’s throngs of air-t0-surface and ship-to-ship missile capabilities, would give China run for its money were it to make a move on the desolate and tiny Senkaku islands. Both capabilities would also work to protect the closest inhabited Japanese islands to Chinese shores should even a highly limited conflict between the two nations erupt. One between Taiwan and China could also easily spill over into Japan’s nearby territory, which makes the installation of defenses there a logical move.
This all comes as smaller Pacific nations continue to arm themselves more heavily and dig in geopolitically when it comes to their various claims on waterways and landmasses throughout the region. There is no doubt that China’s evolving military capability and more belligerent attitude is changing the balance of power that has existed for the better part of a century throughout the region, Japan’s arming of its southern-most island chain is just another sign of it.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com