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U.S. bolsters missile defense in Japan as cutting-edge Aegis destroyer arrives ahead of Trump-Kim summit

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

An advanced U.S. destroyer equipped with cutting-edge ballistic missile defense technology arrived at its new home port at the Yokosuka naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture on Tuesday, as the U.S. Navy’s Japan-based 7th Fleet looks to bounce back from two deadly accidents less than a year ago while also contending with nuclear-armed North Korea.

The USS Milius guided-missile destroyer, while not technically a replacement for the USS Fitzgerald or the USS John S. McCain, both of which were damaged in separate collisions with merchant ships last year, is seen as a welcome addition ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s scheduled meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.

The destroyer is equipped with the Aegis missile defense system that can shoot down ballistic missiles in space, and is part of a bolstered naval force that would be the first line of defense in the event of a return to a security environment that last year saw North Korea lob a pair of intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan and test a long-range weapon. Experts say that long-range missile demonstrated the North is capable of striking most, if not all, of the continental United States.

Trump and Kim are due to discuss the North relinquishing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles next month, though questions have grown over whether the summit will even be held after Pyongyang’s threat last week to walk away if the U.S. makes a “unilateral” demand that the regime surrender its nukes. The New York Times reported that Trump was “surprised and angered” by that statement and indicated he, too, could pull out.

Over the past year, while docked in San Diego, California, the Milius was outfitted with the state-of-the-art Aegis Baseline 9 combat system that provides the ship with upgraded air defenses, ballistic missile defenses and surface and undersea warfare capabilities, the navy said.

The vessel “provides greater capability and capacity” in terms of missile defense to help protect Japan, Cmdr. Jennifer Pontius, the Milius’ commanding officer, told reporters ahead of a media tour of the ship.

“What Milius has right now is the latest and greatest upgrade,” Pontius added.

Its deployment to Japan had been in the works since 2014, when the navy first revealed its plans to modernize its forward-deployed fleet. It is the final destroyer, after the USS Benfold and the USS Barry, to be moved from the 3rd Fleet to the 7th Fleet as part of a plan “to rotate newer and more capable units into positions to maintain presence and coverage across the Indo-Pacific region to provide security and stability to the forward deployed Navy,” the navy said in a statement last week.

With its arrival, the U.S. Navy’s Japan-based surface fleet has returned to its pre-accidents strength of 11 cruisers and destroyers, as well as a command ship and the navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan.

Both the Fitzgerald, which has been sent back to the U.S. for repairs, and the McCain have Aegis systems that allow them to intercept short-and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

The McCain, which is being repaired in Japan, underwent an upgrade similar to the one the Milius recently completed. It is expected to return to service before the end of the year.

Michael Bosack, a regional security expert and former deputy chief of government relations for U.S. Forces Japan, said the Milius’ arrival was a welcome sight not just for the 7th Fleet, but for the Maritime Self-Defense Force, as well.

“Although not designed to be a backfill, the Milius serves to fill the gap left following the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain collisions,” Bosack said. “It also means one more BMD-capable Aegis destroyer in Japan to support the JMSDF,” which has suffered from deployment fatigue.

Bosack cited former Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada’s “ill-advised decision” to keep the SDF on alert under a standing missile destroy order in response to North Korean provocations.

Traditionally, such orders are only in effect for a week to three months at a time in response to verifiable threats, Bosack said. “However, Inada’s decision to keep it standing as a just-in-case measure accelerated operational tempo and impacted maintenance cycles. This affected the relatively small JMSDF Aegis fleet to such a point that the SDF had to request augmentation from the U.S. Navy,” he said.

“Ultimately, the arrival of the Milius comes at a valuable time as both the 7th Fleet and JMSDF seek to recapitalize their respective Aegis fleets during the lull in North Korean provocations,” Bosack added.

No stranger to the region, the Milius linked up with the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the South Korean Navy last October for missile defense drills near Japan in response to North Korean missile drills, and Cmdr. Pontius hinted that similar exercises with the MSDF may be in the cards.

“For more than 50 years, the U.S.-Japan alliance has been the foundation of peace and security and the cornerstone of U.S. engagement in the region,” she said. “We aim to foster and strengthen that bond with the JMSDF.”