The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces' Kongou, a guided missile destroyer, is scheduled to conduct a test-firing of the U.S. Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptor Dec. 17 off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. U.S.-Japanese cooperation on ballistic missile defense (BMD) is long-standing
, and this latest announcement comes as no surprise. Still, the move will mark a significance advance in BMD in East Asia. The Kongou, which has been involved in the U.S. Navy and Missile Defense Agency testing program for more than a year, is scheduled to be equipped with the SM-3 by the end of 2007.
The Kongou, a slightly enlarged variant of the U.S. Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer design, is quipped with the Aegis battle management system and SPY-1D radar (the flat panels are prominently mounted on its superstructure). The ship is eminently compatible with the U.S. Navy's sea-based BMD program. The Kongou's upgrade will only be the beginning. Her three sister ships are slated to be trained up and equipped to conduct BMD operations by the close of 2010 — almost concurrent with the U.S. Navy's plans to have three Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers and 15 Burkes outfitted by 2009. CG-70 USS Lake Erie launches an SM-3 interceptor.
These ships will be equipped not only to independently track and engage short- and medium-range ballistic missiles at the ascent and descent phases of midcourse flight, but also to feed tracking data for longer-range missiles to other BMD systems (to the ground-based midcourse defense interceptors in Alaska, for example), allowing them to plot and engage faster.
Meanwhile, deployment of U.S.-designed and -built Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile batteries, which provide a terminal-phase defense, has already begun around Tokyo. By the time the Kongou class is fitted out with the SM-3, the Japanese Self Defense Force plans to have 10 batteries of three launchers positioned around the country. (Terminal-phase intercepts are designed as a final line of defense. In this case, while fragments of successfully destroyed missiles will continue more or less on their ballistic arc and pepper Japanese territory, this is still preferable to a warhead of any type actually detonating. Because the PAC-3 has matured first, it is relied on more heavily in Japan's nascent system than it will be in a fully developed system.) All of these missile deployments mean that Tokyo not only will be in a better position to defend against the shorter-range North Korean ballistic missiles that threaten it but also will be able to aid the United States in intercepting longer-range missiles fired from the region. Of course, Tokyo does not yet have the numbers to meaningfully defend against Pyongyang's extended-range Hwasong and No Dong arsenal.
But while it is generally cheaper to produce more missiles than it is to produce sufficient interceptors (especially in this case, since interceptors are complex and expensive while North Korean missiles — the Hwasong is essentially a Scud — are comparatively cheap and crude), the balance is shifting in East Asia. Eventually, Tokyo will procure follow-on U.S. systems, including boost-phase technology. Meanwhile, follow-on variants of the SM-3 will be ever more capable (and will eventually be able to intercept not only intermediate-range missiles but also intercontinental ballistic missiles). Indeed, given the scale, Japan could ultimately prove to be the first nation to deploy a full-fledged national missile defense shield. Essentially, it is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to launch a meaningful missile barrage in the region against Japan or the United States, and this has serious implications not only for North Korea with its missile arsenal, but also China with its limited strategic deterrent.