Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on Sunday ordered the Self-Defense Forces to prepare to intercept ballistic missiles from North Korea, several government sources said.
“There is not a high possibility that the missile would target Japan, but we have determined we should prepare for any contingency,” a source said.
Under the order, destroyers equipped with sea-based interceptor missiles will be deployed in the Sea of Japan to intercept any North Korean missiles that appear likely to hit Japan.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department has delayed an intercontinental ballistic missile test that had been planned for this week at an air force base in California amid mounting tensions with North Korea, a senior defense official said.
The official said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel decided to put off the long-planned Minuteman 3 test until sometime next month because of concerns the launch could be misinterpreted and exacerbate the Korean crisis. Hagel made the decision Friday, the official said Saturday.
The test was not connected to the ongoing annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises in that region that have angered North Korea.
The North’s military warned last week that it has been authorized to attack the U.S. using “smaller, lighter and diversified” nuclear weapons. South Korean officials say North Korea has moved at least one missile with “considerable range” to its east coast — possibly the untested Musudan missile, believed to have a range of nearly 3,000 km.
U.S. officials have said the move suggests a North Korean launch could be imminent. But while Washington is taking the North Korean threats seriously, U.S. leaders say they have seen no visible signs that the North is preparing for a large-scale attack.
North Korea held its latest nuclear test in February, and in December it launched a long-range rocket that potentially could hit the continental U.S. Increasing tensions is the uncertainty around the intentions of Kim Jong Un, the country’s young leader.
North Korea has been angered by increasing sanctions and the U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which have included a broad show of force ranging from B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 fighters to a wide array of ballistic missile defense-capable warships. The exercises are scheduled to continue through the end of the month.
Last week, the U.S. said that it moved two missile-defense ships closer to the Korean Peninsula and that it would deploy a land-based interceptor system to Guam later this month. The Pentagon last month announced longer-term plans to strengthen its U.S.-based missile defenses.
The defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the Minuteman 3 test delay and requested anonymity, said U.S. policy continues to support the building and testing of its nuclear deterrent capabilities. The official said the launch was not put off because of any technical problems.
The globe-circling intercontinental ballistic missiles make up one of the three legs of America’s nuclear arsenal. About 450 Minuteman 3 missiles are based in underground silos in the U.S. The other two legs of the nuclear arsenal are submarine-launched ballistic missiles and weapons launched from big bombers, such as the B-52 and the B-2.
The traditional rationale for the “nuclear triad” of weaponry is that it is essential to surviving any nuclear exchange.