As tension mounts ahead of North Korea’s plan to launch a rocket over this country, Japan, the United States and South Korea are deploying several high-tech surveillance ships to monitor what the three allies suspect will actually be a ballistic missile test.
Experts say Pyongyang’s launch offers regional powers a rare chance to collect intelligence on advances in its ballistic missile technology.
The Japan Coast Guard intends to retrieve any debris that may fall into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which could give defense analysts more insights into Pyongyang’s capabilities. The Maritime Self-Defense Force is expected to participate as well.
The possibility of retrieving any debris appears to be low, experts said.
“Japan would very much want to get its hands on the boosters, to learn what materials and technology the North is using,” said military analyst Motoaki Kamiura. Any debris that lands in the ocean will sink too quickly for a successful retrieval, he said.
“We dispatched patrol boats and vessels the last time, but couldn’t find anything,” a Japan Coast Guard representative said on condition of anonymity.
The Taepodong-1 North Korea launched over Japan and into the Pacific in 1998 didn’t yield any salvageable debris, and no attempt was made to collect parts during its multiple rocket tests in 2006 because the missiles didn’t land in Japanese waters, the representative said.
The U.S. is likely to use the launch to test the capabilities of its state-of-the-art missile defense system rather than to intercept the rocket, which commercial satellite images show has a bulb-shaped nose cone consistent with a satellite payload, which the North claims the rocket will be carrying.
“The U.S. will be closely watching how their system operates, the smoothness of communication, and to what extent they can specify and follow their target,” said Wataro Rai of Rimpeace, a civic group dedicated to tracking and analyzing the U.S. military presence in Japan. “They won’t miss this opportunity.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a Sunday TV appearance on “Fox News Sunday” that the U.S. has no plans to shoot down the rocket. “I would say we’re not prepared to do anything about it,” he said, adding the Pentagon does not believe North Korea can put a warhead on a rocket or hit the U.S. West Coast.
Still, media reports indicate brisk activity is taking place in Japanese waters, with several U.S. and Japanese destroyers armed with missiles and missile-tracking devices leaving bases in Japan and South Korea for locations likely in the Sea of Japan.
Rai of Rimpeace also said three spy planes — two RC-135S jets and an RC-135U Cobra Ball, all equipped with infrared telescopes for tracking missiles at long range, have been stationed at Kadena air base in Okinawa, indicating they will likely take turns flying over North Korea.
North Korea said in a state radio broadcast Wednesday that the U.S. has been sending the RC-135 surveillance aircraft to monitor its launch site at Musudan-ri and threatened to shoot them down if they interfered with the launch.
“This is a great chance for the U.S. to try out their system, and I think especially so for the U.S. forces operating the X-Band Radar at Camp Shariki in Aomori Prefecture,” said Kamiura. X-band radar can identify objects from thousands of kilometers away and is designed to differentiate decoys from real war-heads.
“There’s also the USNS Observation Island, a vessel dedicated to tracking ballistic missiles, probably stationed somewhere in the Sea of Japan, and American spy satellites on the lookout,” he said.
These advanced surveillance assets are likely to speed up analysis of the launch, Kamiura said.
For example, when the Taepodong-1 splashed into the Pacific in 1998, it took the U.S. a month to officially declare it was carrying a satellite, he said. But thanks to advances in technology and a preliminary warning from the North, the U.S. should be able to provide details of the flight in days, or possibly even hours, after launch.
The North plans to launch the satellite sometime between April 4 and 8. But the U.S., South Korea and Japan think Pyongyang is using the launch as an excuse to test the long-range Taepodong-2, which they say violates a U.N. Security Council resolution banning the country from engaging in ballistic missile activity.
The North has designated danger zones in waters west of the Tohoku region and in the Pacific between Japan and Hawaii as areas where the first and second stages of the three-stage rocket could fall.
In response, Tokyo has deployed two Aegis-equipped destroyers with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors to the Sea of Japan and one Aegis destroyer for tracking the rocket to the Pacific. It has also stationed Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile batteries in both Akita and Iwate prefectures and in and around Tokyo in case any debris from the rocket threatens to hit land.
“The MSDF only has one destroyer, the Kirishima, dispatched in the Pacific,” Rai of Rimpeace said. “But the U.S. will be watching whether the rocket will reach that far, and I’m sure they probably have as many vessels as they have in the Sea of Japan on standby in the Pacific, monitoring the situation,” he said.
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