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After North Korea’s July 5 missile tests, Japan, for the first time since 1945, is asking America to beef up its military presence in Japan. Why? Because Japan’s hedging and tardiness in relation to missile defense has left its cities more vulnerable than they need be. That risks encouraging Pyongyang in its dangerous nuclear and missile brinkmanship.

Senior U.S. and Japanese officials met in Washington on Aug. 7-8. The Japanese apparently asked the United States to send to Japan an additional U.S. warship equipped with the sophisticated Aegis radar system and the interceptor missile SM-3 (Standard Missile 3). This is to fill a gap, estimated to be some 18 months, before the first Japanese Aegis destroyer can be equipped with SM-3s.

These Japanese and American warships can help track missiles, but are not yet confident they can shoot them down. Still, there is reason for hope. In June, the USS Shiloh, one of three U.S. Aegis warships fitted with SM-3s, successfully intercepted a test missile. That was the seventh successful shootdown in a series of eight tests. (The ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California have been much less successful.)

Attention in Japan is now being refocused from the failure July 5 of the long-range Taepodong II missile that can apparently reach Alaska or Hawaii. The Rodongs that can target Japan and the short-range Scuds were more capable than expected. Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Suzuki has revealed that six Rodongs and Scuds splashed into a Japan Sea target zone only 30 to 40 km square, indicating greater accuracy than previously estimated. This improvement results in part from Global Positioning Satellite technology that North Korean agents have been able to buy and steal in Japan. Japan’s Cold War sloppiness in such matters has not been fixed.

Moreover, Japan’s neglect of air defenses is remarkably feckless for a country pulverized from the air in 1945. And it is only a matter of time before North Korea will be able to put nuclear warheads on its Rodong missiles. Already, some hundreds are assembled in caves, making it difficult to predict launches.

So Japan’s politicians should be asked to explain why Japan’s cities remain undefended 13 years after North Korea first tested a Rodong. And with PAC-3 “point defense” batteries being brought in to protect U.S. air bases such as Kadena, why is Japan’s public not clamoring for protection? When other U.S. allies such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey felt threatened by Iraqi Scud missiles, they were quick to ask for PAC-3s.

Japan’s neglect of air defense contrasts sharply with the demands of the British public for protection after London was attacked (by German Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers) in the latter stages of World War I. So in the 1930s, as the German threat re-emerged, Britain made significant progress in active air defense, fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft artillery and radar. But passive defense was not neglected, including in relation to warning sirens, bomb shelters and evacuation plans. In 1940, Britain’s attention to air defense paid off, even though the Battle of Britain was close-run.

Currently a Japanese system called JALERT is due to come on line next year, but it still is unclear whether this will be linked to U.S. bases in Japan. In fact, Japan has successfully resisted constant U.S. pressure for interoperability and exchange of real time data ever since Japan was handed back responsibility for its air defenses. Such lack of connectivity in the alliance was a stark contrast with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The U.S. put the cart before the horse when it offered cooperation in missile defense to Japan with all the key issues of interoperability/interconnectivity still unresolved. America did so for many reasons, including the panic after the terrorist attacks in the U.S., and in the hope that Japan would share the cost of developing expensive cutting-edge technology. There were also optimists in the U.S. who believed Japan could become an ally “like Britain,” even though Japan has showed no willingness to undertake any significant risk in Iraq.

Putting the cart before the horse never makes much sense, and the consequences are yet to unfold. Thus unresolved issues about the “architecture” of missile defense have festered on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s watch, along with Japan’s tardiness on the bases realignment issue. So what is Shinzo Abe going to do when he becomes prime minister? Meanwhile, hard questions should be asked about why Japan chooses to keep its cities more vulnerable than they need to be.

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