Japan on April 7 completed deployment of surface-to-air missiles to prepare for North Korea’s planned rocket launch later this month, a move a military journalist calls “clearly excessive.”
Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles have been deployed in seven locations: four sites in Okinawa Prefecture and three locations in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
In addition, three Aegis-class destroyers have been sent to waters near Okinawa Prefecture.
The deployments are in advance of what Pyongyang claims is the launch of a satellite between April 12 and April 16.
“On the pretext of responding to a missile launch, the government is paving the way for beefing up defense of the Nansei island chain (in southwestern Japan) and conducting long-distance maneuvering training,” said Motoaki Kamiura, a Tokyo-based military journalist and analyst.
North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region in 2009.
At that time, the Self-Defense Forces deployed PAC-3 missiles in five locations: in Akita and Iwate prefectures in addition to the same three locations in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Three Aegis destroyers were also mobilized.
PAC-3 missiles, with a range of about 20 kilometers, were introduced to defend densely populated metropolitan areas or SDF installations if a rocket or its fragments threatened to hit Japan.
“The government is trying to show to the public that the missile defense systems, on which it spent 1 trillion yen ($12 billion), are effective,” Kamiura said.
A senior Defense Ministry official defended the major deployment.
“Some may say we are overreacting, but there is also the belief that it is important to demonstrate that we are responding decisively,” the official said.
In addition to PAC-3 missiles and Aegis destroyers, the SDF has sent what it calls relief corps to Ishigakijima, Miyakojima and Yonagunijima islands in Okinawa Prefecture.
“(When North Korea launched a missile in 2009) SDF members could rush to the scene from bases on Japan’s mainland,” a senior SDF officer said. “This time, we will not be able to do so unless personnel are stationed nearby beforehand.”
On Ishigakijima, Ground SDF members armed with automatic rifles and handguns stand guard around the PAC-3 missiles installed in a government-controlled area because the island does not have an SDF base.
Defense Ministry officials said the use of firearms is allowed to protect weapons under law, but it is extremely rare for SDF members to carry guns outside SDF facilities.
“We are concerned more about armed SDF members outside bases than about a missile (from North Korea),” said Tadashi Uehara, a former high school teacher in Chatan, Okinawa Prefecture.
The SDF’s preparations have affected tourism in Okinawa Prefecture, its key industry.
In late March, the media began reporting on plans to deploy PAC-3 missiles in the cities of Naha and Nanjo on Okinawa’s main island, as well as on Ishigakijima and Miyakojima.
Jumbo Tours Inc., a Naha-based travel agency, has had about 40 tours to the three islands canceled since then.
“The images of (PAC-3 missiles) shown again and again have given the impression that a missile could fall on Okinawa, although no one knows for sure,” a company official said.
In Ishigaki city, a school trip has been canceled.
“I ask the government and the media not to make a fuss anymore,” said Yoshihiro Arashiro of the Ishigaki City Tourist Association. “Can they take responsibility (for the fallout)?”
A senior Defense Ministry official said Japan also needs to be on alert for actions by neighboring countries, such as Russia.
Russian patrol planes have appeared around Japan’s territorial airspace since late March, prompting Air SDF aircraft to be scrambled on four occasions.
The Russian military has apparently sent the planes for intelligence gathering, although it is unclear whether their mission is related to North Korea’s planned missile launch.
The U.S. military has dispatched Aegis destroyers and intelligence-gathering aircraft since late March, apparently in preparation for a missile launch, according to Rim Peace, a citizens group that follows U.S. military activities.
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