Asia Launches a Missile Race

Japan, China, N. Korea beef up systems, creating tensions in region

Over a decade since "star wars" was first pursued and then largely dismissed as Flash Gordon stuff, missiles systems are back in vogue, not just in the US but in Asia.

The trend is clear: The number of countries possessing offensive missiles has multiplied. Today more than 20 countries can deploy at least a crude version of the SCUD missile that Iraq fired during the Gulf war.

China dramatically demonstrated its M-9 missiles off Taiwan last March. A debate rages in Washington over whether Pakistan has begun to deploy M-11 missiles, allegedly obtained from China. Both missiles are capable of delivering nuclear and chemical warheads.

But perhaps the biggest threat is from North Korea, which is suspected of producing chemical weapons and possessing some weapons-grade plutonium. Japan was shocked when in 1993 when North Korea fired a SCUD-like Nodong-1 missile - directly at Japan. True, the missile fell harmlessly into the sea, but defense analysts believe that it had a range of 650 miles, long enough to strike many parts of western Japan, and with high accuracy.

Pyongyang is developing an improved versions capable of hitting any city in Japan.

"Unfortunately, Japan does not have a defense against those missiles," says Hideo Usui, director of Japan's defense agency. Since 1993, a North Korean missile threat has been prominent in Tokyo's annual white paper on its defense needs.

In early June the Pentagon and the Japan Defense Agency signed an agreement for Washington to provide Tokyo with satellite information, including early warnings of a missile launch. Tokyo does not have this capability now, although there has been talk of it launching its own spy satellites.

Japan set up a Ballistic Missile Defense Research Office this year, complete with a $5-million budget, to decide whether the government should spend trillions of yen to deploy a "theater high-altitude area defense" (THAAD) antimissile system.

This "mini-star wars" system is designed to intercept missiles at much longer distances than the American Patriot missile. Exactly how far is a secret. Authorities say only "more than 100 miles."

The Patriot works at far shorter ranges, although recent improvements have extended its range. The two are now being designed to work as partners to provide defense in depth.

If the THAAD missile fails to hit the target, the missile busters have a second chance to bring it down. A "PAC-3" version has better accuracy and can hit targets farther away then the one used in the Gulf war, where its effectiveness has come into question.

The THAAD prototype is being developed by American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin under a $700 million contract. It is supposed to be ready by next year and become fully operational by the turn of the century.

The United States Army's first attempt to shoot down an incoming missile at the White Sands proving grounds in New Mexico in March this year failed, however. Another attempt is anticipated in the summer.

There are several major policy issues to be resolved before Japan can decided to embark on such an ambitious defense program. A comprehensive system could eat up as much as a quarter of the defense budget, which is already the third largest in the world.

Such a comprehensive, operative program is also sure to raise questions about whether Japan is violating its no-war Constitution. On the other hand, missile development will find ardent supporters in the Japan and American defense industries.

Tokyo's powerful Ministry of Finance is skeptical of pouring money into an expensive and untested missile shield. That is the reason why the government's recent Outline of National Defense, which sets forth defense policy for the next decade, does not include a missile defense system as official policy.

Another oft-cited reason for caution is uncertainty about North Korea's true threat.

While Pyongyang's missile and nuclear-weapons programs have caused concern, why spend big yen to defend against a struggling country that some believe might collapse in a few years?

"We talk about North Korea's missiles, but we're not even sure how long North Korea will last," says Kent Calder, a Japan specialist at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington and the author of a recent book on Asian security.

American presidential candidate Bob Dole said in a major foreign policy speech earlier this year that Washington should make it a "top priority" to license its most advanced missile defense systems to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The Clinton administration will move cautiously, knowing that Northeast Asia is a minefield of mutual and historic antagonisms.

Any effort, for example, to provide a comprehensive missile defense for Taiwan, considered a renegade province by China, would be sure to create serious problems in relations with Beijing, which have been on the mend of late.

Others worry that a missile defense could prompt an Asian arms race as potential adversaries become less vulnerable to an attack.

"The Chinese are concerned because THAAD would negate the modernization of its own missiles and nuclear-weapons systems," says David Lampton, president of the Washington-based National Committee on US-Sino Relations, after a recent visit to China.

Some believe that Japan already has adequate defenses against missiles. It recently commissioned a destroyer equipped with the Aegis radar system that, coupled with a missile, can track and shoot down missiles close-in.

Also Japan's Navy has submarines that can launch cruise missiles to home in on launch sites.

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