Accelerated Missile Defense Plan Moves Ahead

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Japan has welcomed news that the U.S. Navy will position a destroyer with sophisticated radar in the Sea of Japan, a milestone in the plan to provide a defensive shield against missile attack from hostile states such as North Korea.

Tokyo's chief Cabinet Secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, said the plan would strengthen the bilateral military alliance, adding that Japan shared U.S. concerns about ballistic missiles.

The threat posed to Japan by North Korea was accentuated when in 1998 Pyongyang fired a medium-range Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile clear across the Japanese archipelago before it landed in the Pacific Ocean.

The deployment in September of an Aegis-class guided missile destroyer is part of an accelerated three-phase Navy plan aiming to offer full ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability by the spring of 2006.

By that time, the Navy would have 11 ships "capable of carrying out BMD operations against a wide variety of missile threats from virtually anywhere in the world," Secretary of the Navy Gordon England announced this week.

The first-phase deployment, England said in an address at a National Missile Defense Conference in Washington, would provide the Navy with a long-range surveillance and tracking platform.

The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer is equipped with the Aegis radar system, which is capable of detecting and tracking anything from missiles and to manned supersonic aircraft.

England said the vessel would provide targeting data from East Asia "that can be instantaneously shared with command and control and ground-based elements of our layered defense system."

By next year, he said, the Navy will have outfitted an Aegis destroyer with a newly-developed Standard Missile 3 (SM3) missile system, to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

And by 2006, 10 destroyers and one cruiser will have been fully configured to carry out BMD operations.

England's announcement is another key step in the U.S. plan to establish a multilayered defense network to protect itself, its forces abroad, and its allies from missile attack by rogue states or terrorist groups.

President Bush in late 2002 ordered the initiative to be speeded up, with October 1 this year as the target date for a limited system to be in place.

By then, a total of 10 long-range interceptors are due to be installed and ready at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vanderberg Air Force Base in California, designed to intercept and destroy enemy warheads in flight.

According to published reports, in five out of eight tests carried out in total since 1999, missiles have succeeded in destroying dummy warheads in flight. Four out of five Navy BMD tests have been successful.

In one Navy last December, an SM3 guided missile launched from an Aegis-equipped cruiser in the Pacific destroyed a target missile that had been launched from a ground-based range in Hawaii, after the cruiser received tracking data from an Aegis-equipped destroyer sailing closer to Hawaii.

Some critics inside and outside Congress say the system should not be deployed until it is proven completely ready in tests, with some also questioning its urgency and cost.

In his speech, England touched on the accelerated schedule, saying that the U.S. was "no longer compelled to pursue a 100 percent solution that's been totally perfected before it's deployed."

"Instead, the Missile Defense Agency and the Navy are moving to rapidly deploy missile defense capabilities which will provide not only the military, but also the nation, with a mobile, sustainable, globally accessible and highly capable layered defense deterrent force to defend against world-wide ballistic missiles and potential weapons of mass destruction."

England said the goal should not merely be to avoid another 9/11, but freedom from fear of another 9/11, anywhere in the world.

North Korea the biggest concern

Dr. Ron Huisken of the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra said Thursday that there was some opinion in Congress and in technical circles in the U.S. that October 2004 was too early to have BMD up and running.

Critics argued that the technology was simply not proven, to justify the spending of billions of dollars on an initial deployment.

"The counter response is that the nature of the threat has changed. In the past you were dealing with the Soviets, who had a similar process - 10 or 15 years to develop a new missile, and you could depend on them to test it 10 or 12 times before it was deployed.

"Not so with the new characters on the scene. The North Koreans might develop what we would think would be a really wobbly long-range missile, test it once and declare it deployed," Huisken said.

Whatever the arguments, the plan was moving ahead, he said, and one of the "gaps" needing to be filled was the absence of an optimized radar suitably located to monitor North Korea, hence the deployment of an Aegis-equipped destroyer near Japan.

While BMD was being developed to face "a generic threat, if you like, the haste ... is driven by North Korea."

The Aegis destroyer in the Sea of Japan, located between the Korean peninsula and Japan, would provide "accurate tracking data, precisely the trajectory that the warhead is on."

Japan is clearly the country that feels itself most immediately threatened by the Stalinist state, and as a result has plans to buy both the SM3 system and surface-to-air Patriot PAC3 missiles from the U.S.

Apart from the medium-range Taepo Dong-1 missile test-fired across Japan in 1998, North Korea has also been developing a longer-range (4,000-6,000 km) Taepo Dong-2, but has yet to test fire one, according to the South Korean government.

The UK-based Center for Defense and International Security Studies has reported that the outer range of the Taepo Dong-2 could pose a threat to the U.S. territory of Guam as well as parts of Alaska.

A Taepo Dong-3, envisaged in the future to have a range of up to 8,000 kms., could bring the West Coast of the continental U.S. within range, the Center says.

Australia, which worked with the U.S. for decades in monitoring threats from the Soviet Union, has announced that it will be cooperating with Washington in developing elements of the BMD network.

The BMD concept is based on President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), first announced 21 years ago this week.

See earlier story:
World-Leading Australian Radar System Preparing for Role in Missile Defense Shield (Feb. 24, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow