A Japanese naval vessel shot down a ballistic missile Monday over the Pacific Ocean, the first US ally to successfully carry out such a test. Japan plans to install the US-built interceptor system on four of its warships, in addition to land-based missile systems to defend itself from possible attack from neighboring North Korea.
Japan has stepped up military cooperation with the US since North Korea test-fired a long-range missile over Japan in 1998. Monday's test is a reminder of tensions in Northeast Asia, including the flash point of Taiwan, over which China claims sovereignty and which it has targeted with hundreds of missiles. Analysts say Japan's interceptor missiles could be used to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.
In Monday's test, an Aegis-equipped Japanese warship, the JS Kongo, tracked and intercepted a target missile fired from a US naval base in Hawaii, the Associated Press reported. The target was fired at 12:05 p.m. local time and shot down about 100 miles above the ocean at 12:11 p.m., according to the US Missile Defense Agency.
Japan's top government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura hailed the test result.
"This is very significant for Japanese national security," Machimura said at a regular press briefing in Tokyo. "The Defense Ministry and the government have been putting efforts into the development of ballistic missile defense, and we will continue to install the needed equipment and conduct exercises."
Agence France-Presse reports that the interceptor system installed on the Japanese vessel is a Standard Missile-3 or SM-3, and that its deployment would complement Japan's ground-based launchers.
The success of the SM-3 test paves the way for completion of Japan's missile defence involving missiles fired from warships and ground-based launchers.
If the SM-3 system fails to intercept its target in space, the second stage of the shield uses ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) missile interceptors to try to shoot it down.
Japan introduced its first PAC-3 missile launcher at the Iruma air force base north of Tokyo in March, one year ahead of schedule amid tense relations with North Korea, which also tested a nuclear bomb last year.
The test missile resembled North Korea's Rodong missile, which has a shorter range than the long-range Taepondong missile fired over Japan in 1998, reports Al Jazeera. That event has driven Japanese interest in deploying missile-defense systems.
[But] North Korea is believed to have an arsenal of about 200 Rodongs, and Japanese defence experts say it represents the greatest threat to Japanese security.
Riki Ellison, a prominent missile-defence advocate who monitored the test, said that by intercepting a missile similar in speed and size to those in North Korea's arsenal, "Japan has proven its capability to defend and protect their country from North Korean missiles".
The missile test is part of an extensive military collaboration between the US and Japan that includes the Pentagon's multibillion-dollar missile shield designed to protect the US homeland, reports Reuters. Japan is a leading partner in research and development of the shield that the Pentagon says would intercept incoming missiles from Iran and North Korea.
In addition, the U.S. and Japanese navies have worked out common tactics, techniques and procedures for their Aegis-equipped ships to shoot down enemy missiles, the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet said last week.
However, US-Japanese military relations have been strained by security and political issues. Last week, a Japanese naval officer was arrested on suspicion of leaking information on the US-supplied Aegis system used on Japanese warships. Bloomberg reported that the arrest of Lt. Comm. Sumitaka Matsuuchi followed the discovery earlier this year of classified information on the computer of a low-ranking naval officer.
Matsuuchi is suspected of passing Aegis system data stored in a compact disc to an instructor at a naval training school in Hiroshima prefecture west of Tokyo around August 2002, the police statement said.
He's being detained on suspicion of violating an intelligence protection law related to Japan-U.S. defense agreements.
The Daily Yomiuri reports that bilateral ties may have been hurt by US concerns over potential security breaches for Aegis and other high-tech US weapons systems supplied to Japan. The newspaper links US Congressional reluctance to approve the export of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to Japan to the Aegis leak and notes that Commander Matsuuchi, the detained officer, has a Chinese wife.
While the most controversial aspect – the leaking of information overseas – has not been confirmed, the incident has led to demands that the Defense Ministry take measures to prevent a recurrence in order to guarantee the security of Japan and other countries involved.
"The incident has mushroomed into a situation that could have shaken the United States' trust in us. We therefore needed to demonstrate a strong stance [on the investigation]," a senior prosecutor said.
Citing Japanese media, Agence France-Presse reported last month that a planned tour for visiting Chinese sailors of an advanced Aegis-equipped vessel was canceled over US concerns about spying. Japanese and US officials denied the reports. The Chinese seamen had arrived on a historic port call between the two wary neighbors and were due to visit the Kirishima destroyer until the US reportedly objected.
The US military, which protects Japan under a security alliance, and the US Embassy intervened to cancel the tour of the Kirishima, which is based in Yokosuka south of Tokyo, the Yomiuri said, quoting unnamed sources.
Kyodo News, in a similar report, said that the defense ministry decided to show the Chinese visitors a supply ship instead.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reports that defense ties between the US and Japan have also been affected by a months-long political deadlock in Japan over the refueling of US warships in the Indian Ocean. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda wants to pass a bill that would allow Japan to resume refueling missions to US forces engaged in Afghanistan, but opposition members of parliament who recently won control of the upper house of parliament are resisting. Pacifists in Japan have long opposed the overseas deployment of combat troops.