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Today’s other missile defense development

The day’s biggest news story is undoutedly the New York Times‘s bombshell about Barack Obama’s planned grand bargain on missile defense and Iran with Russia. But the other Times reports an interesting development on missile defense in that other nuclear flashpoint, North Korea. In a move that could have strategic implications for the whole northeast ...

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The day’s biggest news story is undoutedly the New York Times‘s bombshell about Barack Obama’s planned grand bargain on missile defense and Iran with Russia. But the other Times reports an interesting development on missile defense in that other nuclear flashpoint, North Korea.

In a move that could have strategic implications for the whole northeast Asian region, the Japanese Government plans to dispatch naval destroyers equipped with anti-missile systems to the seas off North Korea, as the isolated dictatorship continues preparations for the launch of a rocket.

As long as the weapon passes through the atmosphere far above Japan, as seems to be the intention, the system will probably not be fired. But if the rocket malfunctions and threatens any of its islands, then Japan will become the first nation to use a long-range missile defence system in anger. […]

If Japan tries and fails to take out a North Korean rocket, it will be an international humiliation and a crushing blow to the expensive missile defence programme, which is already expected to surpass its estimated cost of as much as $8.9 billion (£63 billion) by 2012. If it succeeds, it will rattle China, which already fears that the combined US-Japan missile defence effort will undermine its own limited nuclear deterrent.

It’s likely that the system won’t actually be deployed, but a real-world demonstration of a long-range anti-missile system would have implications for the missile defense debate in the United States as well.

It would be a lot harder for the Obama administration to continue to use the “effectiveness dodge” — the argument that missile-defense systems should not be deployed because they cannot be proven effective — if the Japanese are able to successfully shoot down a North Korean missile. On the other had, if the interceptors were to miss and Japan was embarrassed, it would actually make Obama’s grand bargain a lot easier to pull off. 

Photo: U.S. Missile Defense Agency

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating