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The powerful weapons found aboard the mystery ship that sank in the East China Sea in December after a shootout with the Japan Coast Guard suggest that the authorities charged with policing and defending the nation’s waters face a new challenge.

In an undersea probe in May of the suspected North Korean spy ship, the JCG found that the vessel carried shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, a heavy machinegun, automatic rifles and a portable rocket launcher, government sources recently revealed.

The SAMs use an infrared sensor that traces heat emitted by aircraft engines. Vessels intruding into Japan’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone armed with these weapons pose a threat to Maritime Self-Defense Force P3-C patrol aircraft, according to the sources.

P3-Cs played a key role in first spotting the mystery ship, as well as two other suspected North Korean vessels that in 1999 fled back to the country despite being chased by Japanese ships in the Sea of Japan off the Noto Peninsula.

The weapons carried by the ship in December also included a ZPU-2, a twin 14.5-mm machinegun mounted on two-wheeled carriages that had been developed by the former Soviet Union.

The weapon was not used during the December gunbattle, during which hundreds of automatic rifle rounds were fired.

But such a machinegun could have wreaked devastating damage to the coast guard vessels, the sources said.

A coast guard official said Japanese patrol boats need longer-range weapons to neutralize the threat of such potent arms aboard intruder vessels. The official said plans are afoot to introduce a new-generation JCG fleet equipped with longer-range arms, but added, “Our budget is very small.”

The first such vessel is to be commissioned in fiscal 2004, but introduction of more vessels, at some 5 billion yen apiece, will all depend on future budget allocations, according to the coast guard.

Currently the JCG has 35 aging 1,000-ton patrol vessels that can cruise at 20 knots.

The new vessel will be capable of hitting 30 knots and will be equipped with powerful 30-mm machineguns all with a remote firing system, a key system that can greatly improve accuracy.

However, the coast guard’s annual budget for procuring ships and aircraft is only 10 billion yen.

With the 1977 enactment of a law setting a 200-nautical-mile fishery zones, the coast guard rushed to commission 26 1,000 ton-class patrol ships in just over two years from late 1978.

These ships are nearing the end of their 24-year life span. JCG officials stress the need to quickly replace the old ships, but the tight budget will limit the debut of new vessels.

MSDF warships have much more powerful weapons. But coast guard officials say the MSDF lacks the skill and less-potent weapons to stop and inspect — not destroy — suspicious ships.

After the failure to stop the two ships off the Noto Peninsula in 1999, the MSDF and coast guard held joint drills to boost cooperation.

But inspecting a suspicious vessel, which, as is often the case may be posing as a fishing boat, requires specific skills, such as how to approach the vessel, stop it, board it, question the crew, check customs documents and carry out a search, the officials say.

“MSDF officers said they are not trained to stop and inspect ships. They said all they can do is destroy them, as that is what their weapons are designed to do,” another coast guard officer said.

In Japanese waters, the coast guard serves as the police, not the MSDF, which functions as a navy.

This strict separation is in part because Self-Defense Forces roles are still extremely sensitive both in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, because of the country’s warring history.

“I believe that separation has meaning despite redundant equipment costs,” said Katsuhiko Nawano, commandant of the coast guard.

But it has become very difficult to distinguish between threats that a police force must handle and those requiring a military response, he said.

Weather halts salvage

KAGOSHIMA (Kyodo) Bad weather forced the Japan Coast Guard on Friday to halt efforts to raise an unidentified ship that sank in the East China Sea in December after a firefight with coast guard patrol vessels.

It was raining in the area at 7 a.m. Friday, with waves running between 3 meters and 4 meters high, making the salvage operation difficult, coast guard officials said.

The salvage operation went into full swing Thursday with manned and unmanned submersibles deployed to monitor and remove debris from around the wreck, which rests on the seabed at a depth of some 90 meters. It is about 390 km west-northwest of Amami-Oshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.

On Thursday, the vessels removed a large fishing net and line from around the wreck, the coast guard said.

The operation was initially scheduled to begin Wednesday but was postponed until Thursday because of rough seas. The salvage is expected to be completed by the end of July, at the earliest, the coast guard said.

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