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US destroyer crash casts shadow on North Korea deterrence

TOKYO — With a U.S. Navy destroyer out of commission after a deadly crash Saturday, Japanese officials are raising concerns over the potential impact on missile defenses against North Korea.


“We need the deterrence provided by the U.S. military in defending against North Korean missiles,” Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada stressed to reporters Tuesday. “We will continue to work with U.S. forces and ensure we can respond to any situation.”


The USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant containership off the coast of Japan. Designed with light armor to maximize mobility, the guided-missile destroyer suffered significant damage to its starboard side. The incident highlighted how vulnerable Aegis-equipped vessels are to damage from a collision.


The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet has deployed 11 Aegis-equipped vessels to the Yokosuka base in Japan, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry. Seven, including the Fitzgerald, are also guided-missile destroyers. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force has four guided-missile destroyers. Given the need for routine checks, not all of the vessels are always active at the same time.


Much of the Fitzgerald’s damage occurred around its phased array radar, a core component of the Aegis system. The ship is expected to be out of commission for some time, and the U.S. has not announced plans for a replacement.


“There will not be an immediate effect from losing one ship,” a Japanese defense official said. But some experts say the U.S. will still be forced to revise its operation plans.


The 7th Fleet also covers the South China Sea, among other waters. Should conditions there deteriorate, many of the American ships currently deployed near Japan will be diverted, leaving Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to bear the brunt of missile-defense operations.

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