Japan Improves BMD with Delivery of New Destroyer
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI - Taking delivery of its second Atago-class guided missile destroyer, Japan added another piece to a sea-based ballistic-missile-defense system that could protect the home islands as well as the United States from North Korean or Chinese missiles.
Delivered March 13 to Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' Nagasaki shipyard, the $1.4 billion DDG 178 Ashigara is Japan's sixth destroyer equipped with the SPY-1D Aegis 3-D system.
The 7,750-ton Atagos are enlarged versions of the 7,250-ton Kongo-class, 1990s-era ships that are themselves enlarged variants of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
"In theory, the six Aegis destroyers should provide an upper-tier shield defending the whole of Japan, complemented by the lower-tier PAC-3 point defense already being rolled out near Tokyo," said U.K.-based Christopher Hughes, author of "Japan's Re-emergence as a 'Normal' Military Power."
Hughes said U.S. forces will see the ship and its BMD capabilities as "useful interoperable assets."
The new DDG deepens Japan's "complementary defensive shield functions with that of the U.S. offensive sword, and its other new capabilities - such as the DDH light helicopter carriers - also indicate an expanding Japanese defensive power-projection capability in support of the U.S. and U.S.-centered international coalitions," he said.
Peter Woolley, author of "Geography and Japan's Strategic Choices," noted the ship's dual-helicopter hangar as an indication of Japan's naval capabilities; shipboard helos were considered offensive weapons and out of bounds a decade ago.
"For a long time, the ships were routinely referred to as DDs rather than DDGs even though they were a new generation of the American Arleigh Burkes," he said. "These are, in effect, mobile, off-shore BMD platforms."
Yoichiro Sato of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, called Japan's naval modernization "partly an effort to meet the coalition demands on its Navy, but also a cautious response to the rapid naval expansion of China" that sends "a more subtle political message to China through the multiple purposes of the Aegis buildup."
In December, the destroyer Kongo used an SM-3 Block IA missile to destroy a medium-range ballistic missile fired from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, at an altitude of 60 miles. That was the first time that a U.S.-allied naval ship intercepted a ballistic missile with the Aegis BMD system, Akinori Eto, senior vice minister for defense, told reporters after the test.