Mapped: U.S. and Allied Missile Defenses Against North Korea
This is why America has put so much effort into radars and missile interceptors.
Faced with North Korean threats to launch medium-range ballistic missiles over Japanese airspace and toward Guam in coming days, Japan is scrambling to move four Patriot missile defense batteries to its western shores, defense officials in Tokyo announced Friday.
The Patriot PAC-3 surface-to-air interceptors wouldn’t be able to intercept the North Korean missiles — they would be well outside of the system’s range — but could target any pieces of the rockets that might fall over western and southern Japan if the launches failed, officials said.
The move highlights just how seriously American allies in East Asia are taking the war of words between President Donald Trump and the North Korean regime, and the real possibility that Pyongyang might actually let the missiles fly. On Friday, Trump tweeted that “Military solutions are now fully in place,locked and loaded,should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, asked about the issue while traveling in Washington state on Thursday, told reporters, “do I have military options? Of course I do. That’s my responsibility, to have those. And we work very closely with allies to ensure that this is not unilateral either.”
The U.S.-made Patriot batteries aren’t the only pieces of high-tech American military gear in Japan that will have its ears perked up. The U.S. Army also operates two TPY-2 radar facilities used for monitoring North Korean missile tests at the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force bases at Kyogamisaki and Shariki in northern Japan. The U.S. bases another TPY-2 at Andersen Air base in Guam.
The Japanese don’t have any other land-based missile defense systems, but have been looking into purchasing the THAAD missile interceptor, which the United States deployed to South Korea earlier this year. Another option is Aegis Ashore, a naval tracking and missile defense system that has been converted to a land defense battery. It is currently operational in Romania, with another opening in Poland in 2018. Several Japanese warships also have the Aegis system.
There are also two large American naval bases in Japan — Saseba and Yokosuka — that harbor over 20 U.S. Navy ships from the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Most of the cruisers and destroyers are equipped with Aegis, but they would need to be in position in the Sea of Japan in order to track and hit the missiles in their ascent phase. Most of the ships are currently on operations in other parts of the Pacific Ocean — some thousands of miles away — and it is unclear if any are currently in position to intercept a missile.
The USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier, is also based at Yokosuka. The flattop pulled into port just days ago after a three-month deployment at sea. Naval officials says the ship can be put back out to sea within days if the need arises.
If the missiles make it past Japan and approach Guam, the THAAD system on the island would be able to pick them up and target them in their descent phase over the ocean.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary