When North Korea sent what it claims was a rocket carrying a satellite over the Tohoku region Sunday, the Self-Defense Forces units deployed to possibly intercept it held their fire because the craft apparently posed no threat to Japan’s territory.
This leaves unanswered the question of how effective the country’s ¥800 billion missile defense system is and what may be required to cope with future threats.
Following are questions and answers on how Japan responded to what it called a provocative missile test:
What intelligence was gleaned regarding Sunday’s launch?
That’s an open question.
After triggering panic Saturday with two false alarms that caused international embarrassment for Japan, Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyers deployed to the Sea of Japan tracked the rocket on their radar.
But while the destroyer Kongou precisely calculated minutes after the launch that the first stage would fall approximately 280 km west of Akita Prefecture, the position of the second booster, which the Defense Ministry initially predicted would drop about 1,270 km east of Japan in the Pacific, was never confirmed. The government apparently has yet to determine if the second stage separated or fell into the sea along with the rocket’s payload.
Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada has said careful examination will be needed to understand what happened to the rocket.
NORAD, the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command based in Colorado, released information within hours of Sunday’s launch that no object entered orbit and the second booster fell into the Pacific while still attached to the third stage.
Do Japan’s defenses render the nation safe?
The answer would probably be yes, if a situation similar to Sunday’s were to present itself again.
Two Aegis destroyers carrying Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor missiles were in the Sea of Japan ready for the launch, with the Defense Ministry assuring that SM-3s can cover most of Japan. Patriot launch units were also set up in Akita and Iwate prefectures to intercept any object that got through the first line of defense. Each Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) has a defense range of 20 km.
No damage was reported and Japan didn’t hit the panic button, the false alarms notwithstanding. But experts note Sunday’s launch was far from a code-red situation, as North Korea had filed prior notification of the timing of the launch. Pyongyang had even notified international organizations of the anticipated splash zones of the first and second stages, making the SDF’s job much easier.
But Sunday’s defensive formation would have had limited capacity to deal with an actual threat, including multiple missiles fired from mobile launchpads, such as was the case when North Korea went on a shooting test spree in 2006.
Japan, however, is meanwhile protected by treaty by the implied U.S. nuclear deterrent and its missile shield is based on U.S. technology now in play in America.
How effective is the missile shield?
Speaking Tuesday at the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense, Hamada expressed confidence and claimed the system “operated very well,” especially in gathering information on what many suspect was a long-range ballistic missile.
But military analyst Tetsuo Maeda said this had nothing to do with the defense system. The former professor at Tokyo International University noted the North’s Taepodong-2 flew far out of the range of the SM-3 interceptors.
Maeda also doubted that the PAC-3 missiles would be able to hit falling components of the launch vehicle, because Patriot interceptors lock onto targets by anticipating their trajectory. They are incapable of intercepting free-falling objects, he said.
“The SM-3s and PAC-3s were literally put out as displays, only because Japan has them. This wasn’t about actually shooting something down,” Maeda said.
How can Japan improve its missile defenses?
Experts say Japan’s ballistic missile shield, which was first set up after North Korea’s launch of a Taepodong-1 missile in 1998, cannot cover some parts of the country, including Hokkaido and Kyushu. A case in point is the PAC-3 launchers that had to be dispatched to Akita and Iwate to protect the region Sunday.
It would take billions of yen to completely cover Japan defensively with Patriots and SM-3s, Maeda said.
Is there any other way to upgrade the missile shield?
In the face of the North’s ballistic missile threat, some lawmakers have proposed opening a Pandora’s box to ensure Pyongyang doesn’t get away with confrontational acts in the future.
Speaking to a Liberal Democratic Party policy panel on missile defenses, Upper House member Ichita Yamamoto said Monday the panel “needs to sincerely discuss whether Japan needs to be able to carry out pre-emptive strikes to enhance its defensive capabilities.”
The former senior vice foreign minister said pre-emptive strikes could be deemed defensive if so interpreted by the Constitution, suggesting such offensive capacity would be needed in the event armed hostilities broke out, because the North has massive numbers of missiles.
Another LDP lawmaker reportedly said at the party’s executive meeting Tuesday that Japan should consider possessing nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s threat.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, however, quickly dismissed this option Wednesday, upholding the three antinuclear principles of not producing, possessing or allowing nuclear weapons on Japanese soil.
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