The Diet enacted a revised law Friday that allows the Defense Agency chief to order emergency missile interceptions without waiting for approval from the prime minister and the Cabinet.

The move paves the way for introduction of a missile defense system in 2007.

During a plenary session Friday afternoon, the House of Councilors passed a bill to add missile-defense provisions to the Self-Defense Forces Law. The bill was passed with a majority vote by the ruling coalition; it cleared the House of Representatives in June.

Under a new article on intercepting ballistic missiles, the Defense Agency chief will seek permission from the prime minister to deploy the missile shield, including Aegis vessels, if evidence of an imminent missile attack is detected. Evidence of this kind would include fueling missile launchers. The SDF would then launch interceptors if any missiles are fired toward Japan.

If there are no clear signs of a launch but conditions call for high alert and there is no time to seek consent, the agency chief can also mobilize the SDF to stand by for any sudden attack and order an intercept under emergency guidelines approved in advance by the prime minister.

“We must prepare a missile defense system to counter a very new threat,” Defense Agency Director General Yoshinori Ono told a news conference Friday morning. “If a missile comes flying toward Japan, we must shoot it down to protect the lives and assets of our citizens before responding with defense mobilization.”

Ono went on to note the ongoing debate over North Korea’s missile and nuclear arms programs.

“But this kind of threat must be dealt with first through diplomatic negotiations as a matter of course,” he said. “I think it is most important for North Korea to return to the six-party talks and that the missile and nuclear (weapons) issues are properly discussed there.”

The fourth round of six-way talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear threat — involving North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia — starts Tuesday in Beijing.

Critics claim that bypassing the prime minister and the Cabinet in issuing intercept orders would undermine the principle of civilian control over the SDF.

The Democratic Party of Japan, the nation’s main opposition force, had demanded that the Diet be required to approve any interception after it had already taken place.

The Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition ally, New Komeito, rejected this demand, however, arguing that ex post facto approval would be meaningless.

Under the new law, the prime minister must report the results of any interception to the Diet shortly after launch.

Japan is engaged in joint research with the United States on a sea-based missile defense system. The two sides have agreed to move this initiative to the development stage in fiscal 2006.

The Diet also endorsed revisions to a related law, looking to reorganize the SDF under a unified structure by installing a joint command chief to oversee the Air, Ground and Maritime forces. The Defense Agency plans to debut the new structure by March.

Currently, one chief of staff commands each SDF branch, while the chairman of the Joint Staff Council only coordinates among the three branches.

With North Korea apparently in mind, the Defense Agency advocates expedited procedures for intercept orders. Because a ballistic missile from the North could reach Japan in about 10 minutes, there would be no time to wait for approval from the Cabinet and the Security Council of Japan.

Japan plans to start deploying ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability 3 interceptor missiles by March 2007, and the Standard Missile 3 to be mounted on Aegis vessels by March 2008.

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