The barrage of missiles unleashed by North Korea on Monday have sent Japan scrambling to bolster its defense capabilities even as the country faces technological and budgetary limitations.
One of the four rockets — believed to be the Scud-Extended Range type — fell into the sea about 200km north-northwest of Ishikawa Prefecture’s Noto Peninsula. This is the closest that a North Korean missile has ever come to Japanese soil.
“North Korea’s missiles have become a real threat,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a news conference Thursday.
Scud-ERs can be fired from mobile launchpads and can carry nuclear warheads. All four missiles in Monday’s incident splashed down roughly simultaneously, each spaced 80km apart north to south.
“That the four landed at the same time is key,” said Toshiyuki Ito, a former vice admiral in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Pyongyang is threatening a “saturation attack of firing many missiles at once beyond Japan’s interception capabilities,” Ito said.
Japan’s current defenses have two components: the Standard Missile-3 interceptor on Aegis-equipped warships, and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptor for shooting missiles down from land.
Some in the government are calling for adding the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which would intercept missiles at altitudes of 40km to 150km.
Full-scale deployment of Aegis Ashore — a land-based version of the Aegis missile defense system used at sea — will also be considered.
But the nation’s finances are tight. Each THAAD system costs 100 billion yen to 200 billion yen ($871 million to $1.74 billion), and six or seven would be needed to cover all of Japan. Aegis Ashore costs 70 billion yen to 80 billion yen per system, with two needed for the entire country.
China is expected to push back forcefully if Japan moves to deploy THAAD. And even beefed-up defenses would not be 100% effective, a Japanese government source said.
Japan’s pacifist constitution poses formidable hurdles to pursuing the capability to launch pre-emptive strikes. Diplomatic efforts to curtail provocations by Pyongyang will be of the utmost importance.