The United States has allowed Japanese officials to see confidential nuclear-related facilities to allay concerns that the Obama administration’s disarmament initiative could weaken its nuclear umbrella.
The move was also intended to prevent Japan from developing nuclear weapons using its massive stockpile of plutonium to counter potential threats from its neighbors in East Asia, sources said.
Senior officials of Japan’s foreign and defense ministries were granted access to three U.S. military installations, according to Japanese and U.S. government sources.
In May last year, they were briefed in the center for the Headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, and they also took a look at the control center for intercontinental ballistic missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
A missile cannot be launched at Malmstrom Air Force Base unless two soldiers press two buttons, located at a distance from each other, simultaneously.
“The Japan-U.S. alliance is in a fit state,” one Japanese visitor, apparently impressed by the arrangement, said at the time.
In April this year, Japanese officials boarded an Ohio-class nuclear submarine that can launch nuclear-capable Trident ballistic missiles at Naval Base Kitsap in the state of Washington. They saw giant cylindrical columns–tubes for launching the Trident missiles–in a long, steel room.
During the tours, nuclear weapons were not shown, and access was limited to operational systems and delivery vehicles.
Still, a Japanese government source said the U.S. move is “a landmark step to reinforce the (bilateral) alliance.”
The United States did not disclose details of its nuclear weapons, related facilities or nuclear strategy although it did promise to provide a nuclear umbrella to Japan under the bilateral security alliance.
However, the sources said that Japanese and U.S. officials have started simulating military and foreign policy responses in the event of a nuclear attack from a third country as part of a bilateral dialogue on extended deterrence that started in February 2010.
In one table-top exercise session, more than 10 officials each from the two countries took part and discussed options under a wide range of scenarios, according to one participant.
Japan has called on the United States to disclose details of the nuclear umbrella since the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear development program started in the 1990s.
Japan is not the only U.S. ally to see nuclear-related facilities. Officials from South Korea and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have also been granted access.
A U.S. source said the move is designed to enhance transparency so that U.S. allies will not be upset by the Obama administration’s nuclear disarmament policy.
James Acton, senior associate in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Washington is trying to reassure Tokyo and Seoul that the U.S. nuclear umbrella will continue to protect them from threats by China and North Korea.
One source said the United States is also aiming to prevent Japan and South Korea from going nuclear to counter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Last September, Washington expressed concerns about the previous Democratic Party of Japan government’s policy to continue to reprocess spent nuclear fuel despite a stated goal of eventually phasing out nuclear power operations.
The policy raised suspicions that Japan may move to produce nuclear weapons. The reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel has already left Japan with enough plutonium to create thousands of nuclear bombs.
The United States also sent nuclear-capable bombers to South Korea during a joint military exercise in March.
A U.S. expert said the dispatch was aimed at keeping in check growing calls for nuclear armament in South Korea, in addition to countering North Korea’s military provocations.
The United States, which is reducing its defense outlays, also appears to be embracing Japan and South Korea into its nuclear strategy to call on the two allies to shoulder a greater financial burden.
Some U.S. government officials welcome plans being considered by the Abe administration to lift Japan’s self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense or acquire capabilities to attack enemy bases.
Some in the Japanese government are wary that the U.S. move may lead to an increased financial burden, but others hail it as strengthening the bilateral security alliance.