National / Politics

Japan may speed up missile defense upgrades in wake of North Korean tests

Reuters

The government may accelerate around ¥100 billion in planned spending to upgrade Japan’s ballistic missile defenses in the wake of rocket tests suggesting North Korea is close to fielding a more potent medium-range missile, according to three sources.

The outlays, currently in a budget request for the fiscal year starting April, include money to assess a new missile defense layer — either Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system or Aegis Ashore, a land-based version of the ballistic missile defense system already used by vessels in the Sea of Japan.

The funding request also covers money to improve the range and accuracy of PAC-3 Patriot batteries, according to the sources, who are familiar with the proposal and who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to talk to the media.

Any rollout of THAAD or Aegis Ashore could, however, take years, the sources noted. Accelerated spending on Patriot missile batteries is unlikely to deliver upgrades much quicker because of the limited capacity of the companies involved — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Raytheon Co. — to speed up already tight production schedules.

“It nonetheless has symbolic value,” one of the government sources said.

As much as ¥300 billion in defense funding will be included in a third supplementary budget, the Sankei Shimbun has reported. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has yet to say whether it will ask lawmakers to approve additional outlays before deliberations begin on next year’s budget.

Officials in the Defense Ministry were not immediately available to comment.

Pyongyang’s apparent technological progress on missiles has been faster than anticipated, exposing Japan to a heightened threat, a senior Self-Defense Forces commander said earlier this month.

Tokyo and Pyongyang have been locked in an arms race for two decades after North Korea fired a missile over Japan in 1998.

North Korea has test-fired at least 21 ballistic missiles and conducted two nuclear tests so far this year. On June 22, a medium-range Musudan rocket reached an altitude of 1,000 km on a lofted trajectory, potentially beyond the range of Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan that are armed with SM-3 missiles designed to hit warheads at the edge of space.

That leaves older PAC-3 Patriot missiles protecting major cities, including Tokyo, as a last line of defense. Their upgrade program will not deliver the first improved batteries until 2020, in time for the Tokyo Olympics.

Warheads from missiles such as Pyongyang’s Rodong, with an estimated range of 1,300 km, travel at speeds of up to 3 km a second. Payloads on rockets like the Musudan, which can fly as far as 3,000 km, plunge from space at least twice as fast.

Japan next year plans to acquire a more powerful version of the SM-3 it is jointly developing with the United States, dubbed the Block IIA. It has not, however, said when the first one will be deployed.