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Is missile defense useful?

Japan’s missile defense system invariably draws much attention every time a firing of a ballistic missile by North Korea appears imminent. The news media in this country have lately carried a wide variety of reports on whether that system would be effective, as there appeared to be growing signs of Pyongyang firing the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile.

But the true value of the missile defense system lies not in its ability to intercept or shoot down flying weapons, but rather in its effectiveness in persuading the adversary to give up the idea of firing a missile for fear of it being shot down. And an important underlying factor in the missile defense system is the fact that the missile defense system of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces complements that of the U.S. armed forces.

In other words, the missile defense system is a weapons system that symbolizes the Japan-U.S. alliance.

The missile defense system is a U.S.-led defense system consisting of an early detection of an enemy ballistic missile with early warming satellites and radar networks and interception and destruction of the missile in flight.

In Japan, naval vessels equipped with the Aegis combat system would fire the SM-3 sea-to-air missile to shoot down an enemy missile in outer space. If that fails, the PAC-3 Patriot ground-to-air missile takes over.

The Aegis system, named after the Greek word meaning an omnipotent shield, can instantly detect and identify enemy aircraft and missiles, automatically select and fire the most suitable weapons and shoot down more than 10 targets simultaneously. Deployment of two Aegis-equipped naval ships in the Sea of Japan would cover the whole Japan.

The PAC-3 is different as it has a quite limited range of 20 to 30 km. Therefore, it is meant to protect specific facilities. Although the PAC-3 is deployed at 11 locations in Japan, their coverage is extremely small when compared with Japan as a whole.

A Defense Ministry source said there is virtually no possibility of a North Korean missile hitting any part of Japanese territories and that PAC-3 deployment is more for public relations.

A high-ranking Self-Defense Force officer also noted that while the possibility of a North Korea missile coming down on any part of Japan by mistake cannot be altogether ruled out, it is utterly unrealistic that Pyongyang would deliberately aim a missile at Japan, because such an act would mean that the North had decided to wage a full-scale war against the United States. In his view, Pyongyang is simply using its possible missile firing as a diplomatic bargaining chip in dealing with the U.S.

Other insiders went so far as to say that the Defense Ministry now has an opportunity to exaggerate the “threats” from North Korea, which in turn would enable the ministry to shore up the nation’s defense capabilities and to carry out military exercises openly.

These views are poles apart from the urgency suggested in TV newscasts, which in turn create fear among the public.

Both the Pentagon and the Defense Ministry claim that the probability of the missile defense system shooting down an enemy ballistic missile is better than 80 percent. But with little empirical data available, the reliability of the SM-3 or the PAC-3 has not yet been proven.

Yet it cannot be said that the missile defense system is unnecessary. Its value lies in deterring a potential aggressor from carrying out an attack. Deterrence, which is the basis of security, means the power to dissuade an enemy from undertaking a particular action by making it realize that the action is too difficult to carry out or will produce too costly a result.

The missile defense system has come to a major turning point as North Korea has made progress in its missile technology and is accelerating its nuclear weapons development.

When the North fired a Taepodong-1 medium-range ballistic missile and it flew over the Japanese archipelago toward the Pacific in 1998, the threat of North Korean missiles spread from South Korea to Japan.

This did not immediately alarm the United States, which at the time was more concerned with the unstable Middle East situation including proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to Iran. But it was forced to change its stance toward Pyongyang following the North’s firing of the advanced Taepodong-2 missile in December 2012 and carrying out of its third nuclear test in February 2013.

Recognizing that Pyongyang now possesses the technology to fire a missile that will fly more than 10,000 km and reach the U.S. mainland, Washington has become aware that not only South Korea and Japan but also the U.S. faces the North’s threats.

In a bid to make sure that Japan serves as a frontline defense to shield the U.S. from attacks from North Korea, the American movable X-band early warning radar was installed at the Kyogamisaki sub-base of the Air Self-Defense Force in Tango, Kyoto Prefecture, to track ballistic missiles fired in the direction of Guam.

The same type of radar has already been deployed at the ASDF Shariki sub-base in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture, to track ballistic missiles flying toward the U.S. mainland.

Japan and the U.S. are jointly trying to improve the performance characteristics of interceptor missiles carried by the Aegis-equipped naval vessels so that they can intercept enemy missiles flying at a higher altitude and to increase the number of such interceptor missiles.

All these moves have led Japan to assume a much greater role than before as the frontline defense for U.S. safety.

It is important to know that the missile defense system works only if the U.S. early warning satellites detect the source of heat generated at the time of a missile launch. Without this information, neither the X-band radar nor the Aegis-equipped ships would be able to track the missile to shoot it down. The most crucial aspect of the defense missile operation is under the control of the U.S.

In other words, the missile defense system constitutes the core of the U.S.-led security strategy. Japan is pouring huge sums of taxpayer money into the system and its Self-Defense Forces are coming to function as something like a subcontractor for the U.S. armed forces. The recent moves to strengthen the missile defense system indicate qualitative changes taking place in the Japan-U.S. alliance.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the May issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

  • Kirill

    In general it is very hard, almost impossible to defend against supersonic space rockets. In particular PAC-3 will do absolutely nothing against them, even if in range. The interceptor missiles on the Aegis destroyers might work but if North Korea were to invest in a MIRV decoy system then it would reduce the defense effectiveness of the Aegis.
    There are some poorly tested systems that might be able to shoot down the ICBMs reentry vehicle as it enters the atmosphere but the technology isnt yet very effective.
    Laser based systems that shoot down the ICBM while its taking off might work but this tech is also not yet well developed.
    Remember it only takes 1 successful hit to wipeout Tokyo so if the North were to simultaneously launch many rockets, then chances of one of them hitting go up.

    • KAB

      It doesn’t have to hit EVERY warhead to be useful. Think about it, if 5 ICBM’s are launched and just 1 is intercepted (though likely more than 1 would be stopped), an entire city would still be saved and the damage prevented would still make it worth having.

      • Kirill

        Well if the north can always try adding on more missiles to make sure enough will hit, I think that if Japan can be very sure about beating North Korea in a arms race. Then beefing up missile defense may work. Otherwise it will push North Korea to build more nukes in order to counter the missile defense without providing Japan with any clear benefit.

      • Starviking

        The problem with NK launching many missiles is that the launch preparations will be obvious for some time in advance.

        As for MIRVs – it’s a pretty advanced technology, for NK, I doubt that
        they could make it work properly. Besides, they would need to
        miniaturise their warheads too – once more beyond NKs capabilities.

  • akanosenritu

    Missile defense system at the certain level has a possibility of spoiling MAD, which keep the world peace to some degree. In this respect, they are converse. At today’s technical level, however, it is said to be working in that it has the ability to have the opponent fear that their missile will be destroyed. Strangely, this mechanism is similar to MAD’s.