Monday, April 02, 2007

Japan deploys missile near Tokyo

Source: CNN.

IRUMA, Japan (Reuters) -- Japan trucked its first ballistic missile interceptors to an air force base north of Tokyo on Friday in an effort to beef up its defenses against its unpredictable neighbor North Korea.

The deployment of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) launchers, capable of shooting down incoming missiles in the final stage of flight as they near their target, was sparked by Pyongyang's firing of a ballistic missile in 1998 that flew over Japan.

But Tokyo rushed the equipment into service a year ahead of schedule after North Korea unnerved the region last year by firing more missiles and testing a nuclear device.

"We consider it very meaningful to deploy the air defense missiles close to metropolitan Tokyo, which is the center of business and political activities," Kazumasa Echizen, the Iruma air base public-information chief, said in a statement. "We will continue our efforts to be ready for any possible emergencies."

About 50 demonstrators shouted and waved banners as a line of green trucks carried the equipment through the gates of the base, about 40 km (25 miles) from central Tokyo, before dawn on Friday.

"Bringing PAC-3s to places like Iruma makes them the focus of interception strategy and therefore at risk of becoming the target of attack by other countries," an activist group said in a statement condemning the deployment as a "military performance".

Closer to Tokyo

The relatively short range of PAC-3 interceptors -- about 20 km (12 miles) -- means they are likely to be deployed closer to the center of the capital to protect financial and government hubs. More interceptors are set to be deployed at bases around the country over the next few years.

The United States has already deployed its own PAC-3s at a base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, and has deployed ship-based Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) missile interceptors at Yokosuka, west of Tokyo.

The new interceptors are the first to be controlled by the Japanese government, which has been pushed into a tighter defense relationship with the United States as regional tensions rise.

Tokyo's close involvement in U.S. defense strategy in Asia, while not as controversial as Washington's planned shield in eastern Europe, stretches the boundaries of Japan's pacifist constitution. Russia reacted angrily to U.S. plans to place parts of such a shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Japan limits military activities strictly to self-defense, meaning it is unable to shoot down a missile which is not headed for its own territory. The restriction annoys some officials in the United States.

Tokyo plans to equip one of its own warships with SM-3 interceptors, intended to shoot down ballistic missiles in the mid-phase of flight while outside the earth's atmosphere, by the end of this year.

It will attempt to bring down a dummy missile using its own ship-based SM-3 interceptors in a test later this year, Lieutenant-General Henry Obering, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, told the House Armed Services Committee this week, in the first such test by a U.S. ally.

Japan's spending on missile defense is set to increase by 30.5 percent to 182.6 billion yen ($1.55 billion) in the financial year that starts next month.

Friday's deployment came after a setback for Japanese intelligence this week, when one of the set of four satellites it launched to monitor North Korea broke down. It is not scheduled to be replaced until 2011.

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