WASHINGTON - The Defense Ministry plans to introduce a land-based Aegis missile defense system to respond to North Korea’s missile threats and will seek funding in the next fiscal year to cover system design costs, a government source said Wednesday.
The ministry had been considering a budgetary request to conduct studies on the installation of the so-called Aegis Ashore system, but expedited the schedule amid a series of ballistic missile test launches by Pyongyang, according to the source.
The ministry also plans to budget a space unit that will be created within the Self-Defense Forces to protect satellites used by Japan and the United States to detect ballistic missile launches, among other purposes.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera is expected to explain the plans to the U.S. government during his current visit to Washington, with Foreign Minister Taro Kono, for talks Thursday with U.S. counterparts.
In the budgetary request, to be submitted by the end of August, the ministry will leave open the actual sum it expects to pay for design of the Aegis Ashore program, because of the need for consultations with the United States, the source said.
But the ministry expects to finalize the costs by the end of the year when the government will draw up the fiscal 2018 budget plan.
Under Japan’s current multitier ballistic missile defense system, the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Aegis destroyers equipped with Standard Missile-3 interceptors are tasked with stopping missiles in the outer atmosphere.
If they fail, the Air Self-Defense Force’s Patriot Advanced Capability-3 surface-to-air guided interceptors are the next line of defense against missile attacks.
Aegis Ashore uses the same components that are currently fitted to MSDF Aegis destroyers, but the system is land-based. It would also be easier for the SDF to prepare for missile intercepts using a permanent system installation.
The government is likely to start selecting candidate sites at the same time. The introduction of the new system will “largely” strengthen Japan’s missile defense, according to a ministry source, but some critics say it could increase tension in the surrounding region.
One estimate has shown that an Aegis Ashore unit costs about ¥80 billion ($728 million). The total expenses could balloon as the government will also need funds to purchase the land where the system will be installed. It is also unclear how long Japan will have to wait before it can start operating the system, and time will be required to train SDF members in its use.
New interceptors now being developed by the United States and Japan, known as SM-3 Block IIA, can also be launched from Aegis Ashore sites. This would potentially help Japan expand its defense coverage, and improve its accuracy.
Following North Korea’s threat last week to launch four ballistic missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam, Japan has deployed the PAC-3 system to four prefectures in western regions that the missiles may fly over.
PAC-3 coverage is believed to extend its radius to within several dozens of kilometers, with the system deployed in areas of particular importance.
The Japanese Defense Ministry is also eager to bring forward the deadline, currently set at the end of March next year, for a plan to increase the number of Aegis ships from the current four to five. Officials are now looking to achieve this by the end of this year, the government source said.
Tokyo has been increasingly concerned about North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs, saying that they have reached “a new level of threat.”