TOKYO --- Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono was seething after a June 3 briefing in his office. "Why didn't you figure that out sooner?" he snapped.
Officials had just learned of a critical flaw in a U.S.-made missile defense system that would derail a multibillion-dollar defense deal.
Three years previously, Japan had decided to buy the $4.2 billion system, known as Aegis Ashore, amid a fusillade of missile launches by North Korea -- not to mention veiled threats by U.S. President Donald Trump that its allies should spend more on their defenses, and buy American.
But now the Department of Defense was saying it would cost 200 billion yen ($1.89 billion) and take 12 years to fix a problem with the Aegis booster rocket, the one that Japanese officials had just discovered.
It turned out these boosters could fall in a much wider arc than previous estimates suggested, potentially hitting nearby residential areas in Yamaguchi and Akita prefectures where the system was to be based. Defense Ministry officials had only learned of the defect before informing Kono, who was furious.
In a previous era, canceling the project would have been off the table. Costly, often delayed armaments were part of the price Tokyo paid for its U.S. alliance, which dates from a 1960 treaty signed by current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's grandfather. Japan's reliance on Washington to ensure security has undergirded decades of Japanese pacifism and low defense expenditures.
But it has become clear that times have changed. The day after he was briefed, Kono went to Prime Minister Abe's office and told him, "We've just learned the system has a critical flaw. We cannot proceed with this plan."
Japan decided to buy the controversial Aegis Ashore missile defense system in 2017, in an overture of support towards the Trump administration. © Getty Images
Abe was surprised, but, persuaded by Kono's certainty, made the unusual decision to cancel the system. (end of excerpt)
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