Japan takes aim
TOKYO - Japan's costly ballistic missile shield, which has never been used in a real-world situation, could soon have its first test.
As tensions mount over North Korea's plan to launch a newly developed satellite-bearing long-range missile, Japan's Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada on Friday ordered the Japan Self-Defense Force (SDF) to prepare to destroy any ballistic missile fired from North Korea if it looks like hitting the country.
North Korea has said that it is preparing to launch a rocket carrying a communications satellite into orbit any time between April 4 and April 8 for the peaceful use of space, highly possibly disguising a Taepodong-2 long-range missile. These missiles can also carry nuclear warheads.
Following a National Security Council meeting with Prime Minister Taro Aso and other cabinet members, Hamada ordered the SDF to activate Japan's missile defense system and intercept the missile or any debris from it.
The destruction order is based on paragraph 3 of article 82-2 of the SDF Law, which stipulates that even though the possibility of a missile or rocket falling onto Japan is unclear, the SDF can take preventative action. The order is Japan's first of its kind after it revised its SDF Law in 2005 and legalized the possible shooting down of ballistic missiles and rockets should it become likely that those would hit Japan.
"Whether [it is] a satellite or a missile test, it's very unpleasant that it will fly over Japan and it should never have to be undergone," Hamada told reporters in a televised news conference broadcast nationally after the National Security Council meeting. "Whatever North Korea's intentions are, [I] hope it to stop the launch, and it's natural for the [Japanese] government to destruct it in case" its planned launch fails, Hamada said.
Many believe that under the pretext of a satellite launch, North Korea is poised to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile to boost national prestige ahead of the Supreme People's Assembly starting on April 9. This date is also the 16th anniversary of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's rise to chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea. Pyongyang plans the launch time from 11am to 4pm Tokyo time during the declared period.
North Korea has notified the International Maritime Organization of its pending satellite launch, apparently to obtain international legitimacy. The North Koreans maintain that as this is a satellite launch, they would view its shooting down as an act of war.
A three-stage Taepodong-2?
There is widespread speculation among military experts that North Korea will launch a third-stage version of the newly developed Taepodong-2 missile, which has a range of up to 8,000 kilometers. Many countries, such as the United States and South Korea, are concerned that a successful test-firing will provide Pyongyang with the capability for inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
The US Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee on March 10 that "if a three-stage space launch vehicle works, then that could reach not only Alaska, Hawaii, but also part of what the Hawaiians call 'the mainland' and what the Alaskans call 'the lower 48'." Blair also said the North indeed planned a space launch as it claimed, but the technology was indistinguishable from that of ICBMs.
In August 1998, the North fired a Taepodong-1 missile, a two-stage ballistic missile, to put a satellite into orbit, but apparently it failed. This time, the North is using its longest-range Taepodong-2, whose first test also ended in failure in July 2006.
Japan's missile defense system
Based on the destruction order issued on Friday, Japan's SDF aims to destroy any falling objects from the North Korean missile by following a two-step process over and beyond Japanese territory.
The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force is deploying the Kongou and the Chokai - the two Aegis-equipped ballistic missile defense (BMD) destroyers fitted with SM-3 missiles among Japan's six Aegis-equipped destroyers - to the Sea of Japan. One Japanese Aegis-equipped destroyer called Kirishima will also be sent to the Pacific to detect and track the North Korean projectile's path and to collect data on it to figure out whether it is a satellite or a missile. Kirishima has no ability to intercept it.
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force will shift its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) ground-based interceptor missiles currently deployed at the Hamamatsu base in Shizuoka prefecture to Japan Ground Self-Defense Force bases in Akita and Iwate prefectures in northeastern Japan, where rocket debris from a failed launch might fall.
Japan's BMD Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) can intercept inter-continental ballistic missiles at an altitude of about 100 kilometers and the PAC-3 has a range of about 20 kilometers. Thus, the ground-based PAC-3 is responsible for the lower range of the shield and is designed to intercept incoming missiles the SM-3 misses.
By convention, a country's sovereignty over airspace only extends approximately 100 kilometers above sea level, the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and space. North Korea's rocket could reach 1,000 km. This makes it hard for Tokyo to claim an airspace incursion on Pyongyang's part, should the missile fly over northern Japan above the atmosphere.
The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force has carried out two SM-3 missile intercept tests, with mixed results. The first test-firing by the Kongou in December 2007 was successful, but the second test from the Chokai, in November last year, failed to strike the dummy missile. Meanwhile, Japan Air Self-Defense Force's PAC-3 missile successfully intercepted a tactical ballistic missile target in its first test conducted on a range in New Mexico in the United States in September.
Japan spent 662.3 billion yen (US$6.7 billion) to deploy its ballistic missile defense system during the fiscal years of 2004 to 2008. Out of this amount, 40.3 billion yen was spent on PAC-3.
The failure to intercept any debris from the North Korean rocket or missile would no doubt upset many Japanese taxpayers, damaging the already unpopular and buffeted Aso administration.
For North Korea, a failed test-firing would be an embarrassment and a lost opportunity for the regime to rally its people with its "glorious" accomplishments in space. No doubt, though, ordinary North Koreans will never be made aware of any failure.
"If there is a failure, some might be executed by hanging by Kim Jong-il'," Japanese military analyst Toshiyuki Shikata told Asia Times Online. "But in Japan, no one will be executed by hanging, even if there is a failure. This is a game of chicken for North Korea, not of us."
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. Besides Asia Times Online, he also write for Jane's Defence Weekly as Tokyo correspondent. He can be contacted at [email protected]