Captain Mineo Hirata and the 280 sailors on board the Japanese navy destroyer JS Kongo will attempt to shoot a ballistic missile out of space today -- a first for Tokyo or any US ally.
The joint Japan-US test off Hawaii comes almost 10 years after North Korea launched a long-range missile that flew over Japanese territory and splashed into the Pacific Ocean, spurring an alarmed Tokyo to invest billions in missile defense.
"There are countries near us that possess ballistic missiles," Hirata told reporters on a Pearl Harbor pier before the Kongo headed out to sea. "This [the test] is very important for the defense of our nation, for the protection of our people and property."
Experts say the test of the Standard Missile-3 interceptor will likely strengthen the US-Japan defense alliance.
But it may also deepen concerns in Beijing that Tokyo could use the technology to help the US defend Taiwan if conflict erupted across the strait.
The Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, run by the US Navy, will fire the target missile into the sky. The USS Lake Erie, a Pearl Harbor-based guided missile cruiser, will track the missile target and feed information on it to a command center.
The medium-range test target is expected to resemble Pyongyang's Rodong missiles, which are capable of flying about 1,000km -- or far enough to put Tokyo and much of Japan within their range.
The Rodong has a shorter range than the Taepodong-1 missile that flew over Japan in 1998.
But the Rodong, of which North Korea is believed to possess about 200, represents the biggest security threat to Japan, said retired vice admiral Fumio Ota, the director of the Center for Security and Crisis Management Education at the National Defense Academy of Japan.
"If we have midcourse missile destruction capability, we would significantly improve our missile defenses," said Ota, a former director of Japan's defense intelligence headquarters.
US Navy ships have successfully intercepted medium-range ballistic missiles in space in previous tests.
Today's drill will see if Japan can do similarly, even though the AEGIS ballistic missile defense system it has on board has been modified slightly to suit Japanese ship specifications.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp, said that even if the Kongo succeeds, it will be a couple of years before Japan installs enough missile interceptors on board its ships to substantially boost its capabilities.
Ota said the test would bolster a US-Japan alliance that has suffered from two recent setbacks.
One involves allegations that a Japanese lieutenant commander leaked classified data involving the AEGIS system. Police arrested the officer on Thursday.
The other is Tokyo's suspension of a program to refuel US ships supporting coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan, Ota said. Japan had to end the refueling mission when the government failed to win enough opposition votes for a bill that would have extended the program.
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