KAUAI ISLAND, Hawaii — A Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer knocked out a midrange ballistic missile in space shortly after noon Monday with a U.S.-made interceptor in a test conducted off Hawaii, Defense Ministry officials said.
The U.S. military has conducted similar successful tests in the past, but this was the first time a U.S. ally has destroyed a ballistic missile in space from a ship at sea.
Experts said the success marks a major step forward for Japan in the buildup of its missile shield, which was accelerated after North Korea’s missile tests last year. But they also voiced concern it could affect the military balance in East Asia.
In the test, the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, run by the U.S. Navy, fired the target missile into the sky shortly past noon Monday Hawaii time. The MSDF’s Kongou, equipped with the Aegis advanced missile tracking system, detected the missile and three minutes later fired its interceptor, destroying the target, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said.
The USS Lake Erie, a guided missile cruiser, tracked the missile target and fed information on it to a command center.
Experts said the test target resembled a North Korean Rodong missile.
This missile has a shorter range than the Taepodong missile North Korea sent over Japan a decade ago. But North Korea is believed to have an arsenal of about 200 Rodongs, and Japanese defense experts say it represents the greatest threat to Japanese security.
In Tokyo, the government lauded the successful missile test, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura telling a news conference: “It is very important for the security of Japan. . . . We must introduce the necessary equipment and conduct drills in a steady manner.”
Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba told a separate news conference: “The shoot-down has great significance. . . . It marks major progress in efforts to raise the credibility of the missile interception system of our country.”
The sea-based Standard Missile-3 interceptor system covers the upper range of Japan’s two-layer missile defense shield.
The SM-3 is designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles outside of Earth’s atmosphere, while the ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability 3 is designed to intercept descending missiles missed by the SM-3.
The Cabinet formally decided in 2003 to develop the missile shield jointly with the United States following North Korea’s test-launch of a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile in 1998, part of which flew over Japanese territory and fell harmlessly into the Pacific.
Japanese officials estimate the cost of the entire missile defense shield project will possibly reach ¥1 trillion.
The first PAC-3 missile launcher was deployed to the Air Self-Defense Force’s Iruma base in Saitama Prefecture last March. The ASDF has since deployed PAC-3s to the Narashino base in Chiba Prefecture.
The Defense Ministry plans to deploy PAC-3 launchers at nine other ASDF bases around Japan by fiscal 2010.