Operational deployment of ballistic missile defense systems by the United States and Japan in East Asia has taken on new urgency given the anticipated North Korean satellite launch vehicle test. Cooperation between Washington and Tokyo has been significant, and has longer-term implications for the region.
The Japan Self-Defense Forces have been positioning and repositioning ballistic missile defense (BMD) assets in anticipation of an expected North Korean test of a satellite launch vehicle that will likely pass over Japanese territory. The deployment is emblematic of a shifting strategic balance in East Asia, one where extensive Japanese and American cooperation will create problems for China in the long run. As STRATFOR has noted, close U.S.-Japanese cooperation has made Tokyo one of Washington's closest partners in BMD deployment, and the first international partner to deploy some of the latest BMD technology. The years since the 2006 North Korean missile test have seen the operational deployment of these technologies - deployment that has begun to alter the dynamic in the region, as Japan and the United States both now have the tools in place to attempt an intercept. (click image to enlarge) These tools take three forms:
Ground-based midcourse defense (GMD): These large, silo-based interceptors are deployed by the United States at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. They were the first BMD system to be deployed operationally in the 21st century, though their performance in early testing was spotty. As their name suggests, they are capable of high-altitude intercepts in the midcourse phase of flight. (The various phases of intercept place unique constraints on BMD systems regarding reaction speed, altitude and guidance, among other areas.)
Aegis/Standard Missile-3 (SM-3): These ship-based interceptors are deployed aboard modified Aegis-equipped guided-missile cruisers and destroyers. Currently, 18 U.S. warships (16 of which are based in the Pacific and several of which were recently in the vicinity of Japan and the Koreas) and two Japanese warships are so equipped. Both Washington and Tokyo have the authority to launch the interceptors on their own ships. The system is capable of intercept in the ascent and descent phases of flight, and performed successfully in 2008 when it brought down a wayward spy satellite.
Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3): These mobile, ground-based interceptors are the latest addition to the Patriot air defense system. These are deployed by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force on Japan's home islands and are under Tokyo's authority. They are capable of terminal-phase defense.
Though these tools are in place, STRATFOR has detailed the many arguments against an intercept. Nevertheless, Japan's defense and foreign ministers and chief Cabinet secretary met March 25 to discuss a course of action. Article 82-2 of Japan's Self-Defense Forces Law authorizes the forces to shoot down objects — including missiles, satellites and debris, but not aircraft — that will hit Japanese territory, either terrestrial or maritime. Legally, Japan has the option of preauthorizing an intercept for a set period of time; a final decision regarding the anticipated North Korean launch is expected by March 27. Authorization to shoot down any object from the launch that could land on Japanese territory is expected. (Ideally, the Japanese would prefer that nothing even overfly their territory, but here they are limited legally.) (click image to enlarge) The Japanese have already announced that their two Kongou-class destroyers upgraded to BMD capability are patrolling the Sea of Japan, armed with the SM-3. This is considered the first line of defense, and at the very least will track North Korea's launch and provide data for plotting an intercept. Tokyo has also begun to reposition PAC-3 batteries in Akita and Iwate prefectures to provide a final line of defense should a stage from the missile or debris begin to descend toward Japanese territory. This layered system is a fundamental part of the Pentagon's design for a multifaceted and redundant BMD capability. The U.S. Navy also has BMD-capable warships in a position to be in the Sea of Japan, though their precise status is unknown. These ships also are likely to be in position and tracking the launch. Even if an intercept is not planned, the ships will monitor the flight and use the launch as an opportunity to test the integration of their systems. The United States also has GMD interceptors in place, though the North Korean launch will have passed through the SM-3 engagement envelope over the Sea of Japan before it enters the GMD envelope. If Washington were to attempt an intercept, it would likely use the SM-3 first and the GMD system as a backup. U.S. Forces Korea, the American military command in South Korea, also deploys the PAC-3, though it would only be appropriate for defense against shorter-range missiles launched directly at South Korea from North Korea. Seoul has also expressed an interest in this system and may acquire it in the future. Click to enlarge Ultimately, North Korea's largely diplomatically motivated threats and its ballistic missile arsenal have given Japan, South Korea and the United States strong common ground on which to cooperate over ballistic missile defense. This common ground has been a critical factor in the defensive systems deployed in the region today. The benefits of cooperation are also manifest. For the United States, wider international deployment helps fund the immensely expensive development of BMD technology and offers wider validation of the investment. It also allows for easy integration of radar tracking data and a new location for sensors, and it allows the Japanese to carry some of the burden in terms of deploying the technology to counter North Korea. For Japan (and perhaps for South Korea down the road), the cooperation offers access to the best BMD technologies in the world. This technology could form the foundation of a defensive capability against the real threat of North Korean missiles. This cooperation is thus likely to continue and expand — raising major concerns for China. As Beijing attempts to build a modern second-strike nuclear capability, the adoption of modern BMD capability in South Korea and Japan begins to erode the deliverability of that nuclear deterrent, requiring China to take more advanced steps — steps that may outwardly appear offensive in nature — to ensure the long-term viability of its deterrent. In other words, long after Pyongyang's anticipated launch in 2009, the expansion of BMD capability in the region will continue to influence the strategic balance in East Asia.