North Korea’s missile launch over Hokkaido on Tuesday overshadowed what was meant to be a symbolic moment of Japan-U.S. solidarity, having come just hours before Air Self-Defense Force anti-missile drills at two U.S. bases in Japan.
The twin deployments, which were demonstrated for the media, took place at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture. They marked the first time ASDF Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) anti-missile systems were deployed and tested at U.S. air bases in Japan.
Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez, the commander of U.S. Forces Japan, was forced to cancel a joint appearance with his Japanese counterpart to deal with the North Korean situation.
“We never anticipated our drill (at Yokota) today would coincide with North Korea’s missile launch, which came right before this news conference,” Lt. Gen. Hiroaki Maehara, commander of the ASDF’s Air Defense Command, told reporters. “Standing together on stage with Gen. Martinez would’ve meant a lot, so it’s a shame he couldn’t join us today.”
The PAC-3 system is designed to shoot down incoming short- and medium-range missiles in their terminal phase of flight, according to Washington-based military think tank Arms Control Association. Asked about the system’s capability, Maehara expressed confidence it can work “effectively.”
A similar drill is slated for Sept. 7 at Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture.
The SDF is touting the series of exercises utilizing U.S. bases as the latest example of “concrete action” that was agreed upon between Tokyo and Washington in May. The two allies at the time agreed to jointly beef up their defense capabilities to deal with the North Korean threat.
The U.S. side boasted before Tuesday’s drills that the demonstration would send a powerful message about the Japan-U.S. alliance.
“Bilateral engagements like this one demonstrate the enduring strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the determination of both our nations to address the security challenge posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs,” Martinez said in a statement ahead of the exercises.
Yokota — home to the headquarters of U.S. Forces Japan and the ASDF’s Air Defense Command — is considered particularly at risk of a missile attack. This, coupled with the fact the base has no PAC-3 system in place, could create the impression that Tuesday’s drill was meant to practice defending against a North Korean attack.
Japanese officials, however, play down this view. They argue that the drills were instead meant to demonstrate the SDF’s flexibility — or its ability to deploy the anti-missile system not only to its own facilities but “anywhere,” including U.S. bases.
Yoshiyuki Sugiyama, the ASDF chief of staff, said last week that it is possible that PAC-3 deployment drills will be carried out at nonmilitary venues in the future, presumably including places like public parks.
In the Yokota drill, a 40-plus contingent of ASDF personnel dispatched from a base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, practiced a series of steps required to activate the system comprising multiple elements, including a launcher, its own radar system and an electronic power generator.
It took the unit about 15 minutes to complete the steps before being able to simulate the final stage of firing the system’s surface-to-air missiles.
Still, the time needed to deploy such a system greatly varies depending on circumstances, said Akira Ito, commander of the 1st Air Defense Missile Group.
Staff writer Jesse Johnson contributed to this report.