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N. Korea missile launch leaves question in Japan's defense ability

The Japanese government Tuesday insisted that it is taking
necessary steps to counter North Korea's missile threat, but the
ballistic missile that flew over northern Japan 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.

Japan's Self-Defense Forces did not take actions to intercept
the missile, with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera saying the
decision not to bring it down was taken because radar data ruled out
the possibility of the projectile falling on Japan.

Despite the 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 Japan'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 attack.

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 the missiles coming down due to
malfunctions or other reasons.
After North Korea said earlier in the month it is considering
flying ballistic missiles over Japan into waters near the U.S.
Pacific territory of Guam, some PAC-3 units were moved to four
prefectures in western Japan along the path the projectiles could
take.

But the missile which Pyongyang launched Tuesday headed in a
completely different direction, passing Cape Erimo in the
northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido and dropping into the sea 1,180
kilometers east of the cape.

At the U.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.

Aegis Ashore 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 the system will be
permanently installed on land.

The ministry plans to secure funds in the next fiscal year
starting April for possible introduction of Aegis Ashore, but it is
expected to take several years to install the new system.

Japan needs three Aegis ships equipped with missile shield
capability to protect all of the nation's territory, but it only has
four now, which "barely" enables the country to continuously keep
watch on missile threats because there are times when ships cannot be
used due to checkups, according to a government official.

The Defense Ministry plans to double the number of such Aegis
ships to eight, but the timeline is set at around 2021.

The ministry has also been growing wary about North Korea's
apparent demonstration of its ability to conduct a surprise attack,
using mobile launchers and choosing nighttime to fire missiles.

The fact that North Korea launched the missile Tuesday from a
location it never used before -- Sunan in its 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. There is no end," a different senior official at
the ministry said. (Aug. 30)