Japan Acquires Missile Defense Shield

February 15, 2008
by Henry S. Kenyon

A key Pacific ally of the United States has become the first foreign nation to field a sea-based ballistic missile interception system. The technology is a modification of the Aegis air defense weapons system designed to track and destroy short- and intermediate-range missiles. This capability permits Japanese warships to defend their island nation from attack by neighboring states.

On December 18, 2007, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Aegis destroyer, the JDS Kongo, successfully acquired, tracked and intercepted a target missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Test Facility in Hawaii. The Kongo fired a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block 1A, which destroyed the target approximately three minutes later at an altitude of 100 miles over the Pacific Ocean. The event, designated Japan Flight Test Mission 1 (JFTM-1) was the first time that an allied vessel has successfully intercepted a ballistic missile with the Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. 

The BMD capability is revolutionary for the Japanese military, explains Rear Adm. Alan B. Hicks, USN, program director, Aegis ballistic missile defense program, Missile Defense Agency, Washington, D.C. “This mission area is so transformational that it changes how you see the world. Instead of just defending an area of a few hundred miles, you’re dealing with a whole country that spreads across time zones,” he says.

In 2006, the U.S. military installed a forward-based X-band radar system in northern Japan to provide early warning of a North Korean missile launch. Radar data is shared with both the U.S. and Japanese governments. Besides providing a long-range sensing capability, the radar also tracks and coordinates medium-range ship-based interceptors and short-range ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles.

The new Japanese defensive capability highlights the overall progress of the Aegis BMD program. Adm. Hicks notes that the U.S. Navy has fielded a new Aegis BMD baseline—baseline 3.6—that allows the system to conduct long-range radar search and tracking. This modification also permits Aegis-equipped ships to launch the SM-3 Block 1A missile.

Aegis BMD 4.0 will be combined with new software to significantly upgrade the Aegis SPY-1 phased-array radar, permitting a greater sensor capability than is currently available. This upgraded system begins testing in 2009, followed by fielding to the fleet in late 2010 and early 2011.

The next significant upgrade to Aegis BMD will occur in the late 2010 time frame with the SM-3 1B missile and the upgrades to the system. This enhancement will include a BMD signal processor designed to provide Aegis-equipped ships with a synthetic wideband radar capability for greater target discrimination.

Besides Japan, other countries have expressed interest in Aegis BMD. Adm. Hicks notes that the nations that have purchased Aegis systems are Norway, Spain, Australia, South Korea and Japan. At this time, however, Japan is the only nation that has acquired the BMD upgrade for Aegis. The United States has agreements to provide both Spain and Australia with technical information about BMD capabilities. Spain dispatched one of its Aegis-equipped destroyers to participate in a BMD test in 2007.

The United States is in discussions with The Netherlands, which does not operate Aegis radar but uses a compatible radar suite. A Dutch air defense frigate successfully tracked a missile during a test in 2006. Both Germany and Denmark also have ships equipped with this radar capability, and each nation has shown interest in Aegis BMD. The program also is working with NATO and the United Kingdom, which is exploring a BMD capability for its new Type 45 air defense frigates. “The Japanese test was a validation to other nations that it was technically possible to acquire, install and implement this capability successfully. So we also view that as a game changer as to how people perceive that capability,” says Adm. Hicks.


The full version of this article is published in the March 2008 issue of SIGNAL Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers March 3, 2008. For information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA or subscribing to SIGNAL, contact AFCEA Member Services.