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Can America's SM-3 Missile Protect Japan from North Korea?

Sebastien Roblin

Security, Asia

Could this work?

Japan has a Self-Defense Force rather than a traditional military, because since World War II its constitution has forbidden engaging in warfare abroad. Nonetheless, the island nation finds itself menaced by North Korea, in part due to the presence of American military bases—a threat Pyongyang underscored way back in 1998 when it shot a Taepodong-1 missile testbed across Japanese airspace.

There have been many more North Korean missile tests since—one just today. While Pyongyang is still working on an intercontinental ballistic missile with the range to hit the West Coast of the United States, Japan lies well within striking distance of its medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). These could hit the Japanese main islands within ten minutes after launch.

Tokyo has responded to the threat with its own countermeasures, which currently include six air-defense missile groups armed with PAC-3 Patriot surface-to-air missiles, as well four destroyers armed with longer-range SM-3 missiles. However, it’s not clear whether either system would prove entirely effective at intercepting larger, faster and higher-flying IRBM missiles. The Mach 4 PAC-3, for example, has an effective range of roughly thirty kilometers against theater ballistic missiles, making it viable only for localized defense.

To meet the challenge, new super-long range version of its SM-3 naval missile is being jointly produced by Mitsubishi and Raytheon, designed to intercept IRBMs during the takeoff and midflight phase. Unfortunately, the new missile recently failed its second live-fire test, underscoring how ballistic-missile defense systems remain a work in progress. Nonetheless, Japan appears to be moving rapidly towards procuring a land-based component to its SM-3 force, to supplement its ships at sea.

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