The Japanese government has insisted that it is taking necessary steps to counter North Korea’s missile threat, but the ballistic missile that flew over northern Japan on Tuesday exposed the limits to which the country can fully prepare for the highly unpredictable launches.
“We’ve been completely tracking the movement (of the missile) ever since its launch and are thoroughly ready to protect the lives of the people,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters as he announced that a missile had crossed over Japan before splashing into the Pacific Ocean.
The Self-Defense Forces did not take actions to intercept the missile, with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera saying the decision not to blow it out of the sky had been taken because radar data ruled out the possibility of the projectile falling on Japan.
Despite reassurances from the government leadership, Lt. Gen. Hiroaki Maehara — the Air Self-Defense Force commander in charge of anti-missile operations — admitted the same day that the timing of the launch was “a total surprise.”
Under the country’s current two-tier 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 ASDF’s ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors are the next line of defense against missile attacks.
Japan has more than 30 PAC-3 batteries deployed nationwide, each with a range of several dozen kilometers. While the government plans to introduce interceptors that would double their range, the current system does not have the coverage to defend the entire landmass of Japan, and the SDF have adjusted the locations of the batteries to prepare for the eventuality of missiles coming down due to malfunctions or other reasons.
After the North said earlier in the month that it is considering launching ballistic missiles over Japan, into waters near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, some PAC-3 units were moved to four prefectures in the country’s west along a projected path of the projectiles.
But the missile Pyongyang launched Tuesday headed in a completely different direction, passing Cape Erimo in Hokkaido and dropping into the sea 1,180 kilometers east of the cape.
At the U.S. Air Force’s Yokota Air Base in a Tokyo suburb, where the ASDF practiced the deployment of the PAC-3 system the same day, Maehara stressed the importance of positioning the batteries near areas where a missile is projected to fall, saying, “PAC-3 units need to be deployed at the right location at the right time.”
In Hokkaido, there was only one anti-missile group stationed at the ASDF’s Chitose base, some 160 km away from Cape Erimo. There was apparently no time to bring in other units.
As North Korea continues the test-firing of ballistic missiles, many of which have fallen into the Sea of Japan, the Defense Ministry has stepped up efforts to improve Japan’s defense capabilities. Among the options being considered is introducing a land-based Aegis missile defense system known as Aegis Ashore.
The system uses similar components to those fitted on MSDF Aegis destroyers, but is expected to reduce the workload of SDF members in missile intercept operations because it will be permanently installed on land.
The ministry plans to secure funds in the next fiscal year, which starts in April, for possible introduction of Aegis Ashore, but installing the new system is expected to take several years.
Japan only needs three Aegis ships equipped with the missile shield capability to protect all of the nation’s territory, and it has four now, though this “barely” enables the country to continuously keep watch on missile threats because there are times when ships cannot be used due to maintenance, a government official said.
The Defense Ministry plans to double the number of its Aegis vessels to eight, but those warships are unlikely to be plying nearby waters until around 2021.
The ministry has also been growing wary about what seem to be demonstrations by North Korea of its ability to conduct a surprise attack, using mobile launchers and firing missiles during the night.
The fact that North Korea launched the missile Tuesday from a location it had never used before — Sunan in the capital, Pyongyang — may also be a sign that it was testing its abilities to conduct a sneak attack, one ministry official said.
“No matter how much we strengthen our missile defense, there will still be holes,” another senior official at the ministry said. “It’s endless.”