Japan hopes its planned missile shield will provide at least partial protection

AP , TOKYO

Wed, Aug 20, 2003 - Page 5

Japan's proposed missile-defense system won't be enough to initially shield the entire country but will still serve as a partial deterrence against a possible North Korean attack, a Defense Agency official said yesterday.

Budgetary and technical constraints mean Japan cannot deploy enough surface-to-air missile units to cover the entire archipelago in the early years and that hard choices will determine what areas will be defended first, the agency spokesman said.

"Some insist that first Tokyo, Osaka or big cities should be covered, but there are all kinds of discussions," the official said on condition of anonymity. "There has to be some kind of compromise because the number of missiles is extremely limited."

Under one plan, the Defense Agency will concentrate on first protecting urban areas and strategic bases, Kyodo News reported, citing Defense Agency officials. Ground-based anti-missile batteries would first be placed around six locations, mostly big cities, the report said.

The Defense Agency spokesman acknowledged it would be virtually impossible to protect the entire country round the clock. He said deployment locations have not been decided and would not say how many missiles Japan would array.

Japan is reportedly hoping to launch the missile-defense system as early as 2006.

The spokesman said implementation of even a limited defense system is seen as a deterrence against neighboring North Korea, which has fanned concern in Tokyo with its missile development and nuclear weapons programs.

Part of the envisioned system will include at least one Aegis-equipped naval destroyer -- with top-of-the-line surveillance technology -- constantly monitoring for incoming missiles, which it would then try to intercept with ship-to-air missiles.

"Japan wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem, but at the same time we need a deterrence," the spokesman said. "Always at least one ship would be in operation."

The Defense Agency's annual white paper, released earlier this month, cited North Korea's nuclear and missile programs as one of Japan's biggest security concerns, and recommended speeding up research on missile defense.

Japan currently has 27 Patriot anti-missile batteries. But they can only down missiles with a shorter range and slower speed than the ballistic missiles North Korea is believed to be developing -- including the Taepodong missile test-launched over Japan's main island in 1998.

Between fiscal 1999 and last year, Japan spent about ¥13.7 billion (US$115 million) on missile defense research. It budgeted an additional ¥1.9 billion (US$16 million) to test newer systems.