First of two parts

As tensions mount over the planned launch of a North Korean rocket, so too are doubts about the effectiveness of Japan’s ballistic missile shield, which has never been used in a real-world situation.

The communist state announced plans last month to send a Kwangmyongsong-2 communications satellite into space sometime between April 4 and 8. The United States and South Korea, however, have accused the North of using the launch as an excuse to test an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Japan has warned it may shoot down any North Korean rocket threatening its territory, and the Security Council of Japan may decide by Friday to authorize an interception attempt.

However, echoing the concerns of many experts, Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone made headlines Tuesday when he said successfully shooting down the North’s rocket, or any sections that may fall from it, is no sure bet.

“It’s true it would be difficult. We haven’t had experience in trying to intercept (a ballistic missile),” Nakasone told a news conference.

“We don’t know how (the missile) will fly over, and where it will go. We should make efforts not to let (the launch) happen until the very last minute,” he said.

That may sound a sour note with taxpayers. The government has long emphasized the supposed effectiveness of the extremely expensive system to defend Japan and its people from the military threat posed by North Korea.

Since 1998, when Pyongyang sent a long-range Taepodong-1 ballistic missile over Honshu that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, Japan has worked closely with the U.S. to develop the Ballistic Missile Defense system. According to the Defense Ministry, the estimated cost has been nearly ¥800 billion through this fiscal year.

The multilayered system against midrange ballistic missiles, including the North’s Rodong, currently consists of two Aegis destroyers with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor missiles for knocking out targets during the “midphase” of their flight in space, and six ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) launch units with a range of 20 km for intercepting any incoming missiles that get past the SM-3s and are in their “terminal phase.”

The government plans to arm two more Aegis destroyers with SM-3s and deploy five more PAC-3 launchers by fiscal 2010.

Neither the sea- nor ground-based systems, however, have ever been used in a real missile attack. Despite successful tests conducted in the past by both the U.S. and Japan, the systems’ real capabilities are a mystery.

A former researcher for NASA who asked to remain anonymous told The Japan Times that U.S. spy satellites monitoring the launch have not been updated with sufficient information on the Taepodong-2 missile, making a successful interception difficult.

“Russian and U.S. spy satellites can instantly identify and provide data on rockets they have monitored in the past — similar to matching fingerprints,” he said. “But since there isn’t any data on the North’s Taepodong-2, intercepting it won’t be easy.”

Military analyst Kazuhisa Ogawa — one expert who believes it highly likely Pyongyang already possesses nuclear-tipped midrange ballistic missiles that can reach Japan — said the only situation in which an interception would be called for is if the missile or its boosters fall on Japanese territory.

Technologically, Japan currently does not possess the capability to shoot down an ICBM heading toward the United States. A successfully launched long-range ballistic missile heading from North Korea toward U.S. territory would fly over Japan at an altitude of around 1,000 km, far out of reach for an SM-3 and its range of 100 km.

“But if the missile flew toward Japan, I believe we have a fair chance of knocking it down, as long as it follows a normal trajectory,” Ogawa said, warning the risk of failure would increase if the missile were on an abnormal trajectory due to a malfunction or other unexpected cause.

If the missile instead disintegrated in midair while heading over Japan — which would be highly unlikely — most of the debris would burn up before reaching the ground, he added.

When North Korea tested a Taepodong-2 in 2006, it failed within seconds after its launch. If the upcoming launch succeeds, it will prove the North’s capability of firing an ICBM with an estimated range of 6,000 km, which could potentially reach Alaska or Hawaii.

It will also boost the North’s nuclear threat. If Pyongyang develops the technology to build nuclear warheads that weigh less than the Taepodong-2’s estimated maximum payload of 1,000 kg, parts of the U.S. would be theoretically in danger.

North Korea has given the International Civil Aviation Organization and International Maritime Organization the coordinates for two potential “danger” zones where the first and second stages of the three-stage Taepodong-2 are expected to fall.

South Korea, Japan and the U.S. all see no difference between sending a satellite into space or launching a missile since they use the same Taepodong-2.

One of the zones lies in waters less than 120 km from Japan’s northwestern coast. The other is in the Pacific between Japan and Hawaii. The lack of notification of a third and final drop zone suggests the launch will be an attempt to send up a satellite.

“The only difference between firing a (rocket carrying a) satellite or a missile is that a missile will need to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, requiring its warhead to be equipped with sufficient heat-protection technology, which I doubt the North has,” the former NASA researcher said.

As a precautionary measure, the government is expected to send two Patriot launch units to Akita and Iwate prefectures — which lie under the rocket’s intended trajectory as announced by Pyongyang — as well as putting the two Aegis destroyers on station in the Sea of Japan. The Defense Agency has said two warships with SM-3s can provide protection from the North’s ballistic missiles for most of the nation.

The U.S. is also closely monitoring the situation and has made clear it intends to defend Japan. On Monday, the Aegis destroyer USS Stethem, based in Kanagawa Prefecture, made a port call in Aomori — a stop that raised speculation it and other U.S. warships may go on station before Pyongyang’s launch.

Atsushi Miyata, a North Korea specialist and author of “North Korea’s People’s Army,” is one of those who questions the missile shield’s practicality in actual warfare.

“It’s unlikely the enemy will only fire a single missile during war. The issue is whether the system can intercept multiple missiles simultaneously,” he said, adding that although the government has officially declared that possible, he doesn’t buy it.

“I don’t think the system is capable of that. A few are bound to get through,” he said.

The main objective of the ¥800 billion system, however, appears to be to give Japan political leverage against Pyongyang’s missile threats.

A government source, who didn’t want his name used, said that developing and maintaining the missile defense system required enormous expenses when compared to the cost of regular missiles.

The system instead exists to let the North know Japan won’t give in to its threats.

“It’s a political weapon,” he said.

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