WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Japanese navy destroyer shot down a dummy ballistic missile in a test about 100 miles (160 km) above the Pacific on Monday, a first for a U.S. ally, Japanese and U.S. forces said.
The $55 million (27 million pound) test interception at 7:12 a.m. Tuesday Japan time (10:12 p.m. British time) followed years of growing U.S.-Japanese missile-defence ties, sparked by North Korea’s firing of a Taepo Dong 1 ballistic missile over Japan on August 31, 1998.
“This was a monumental event in the Japan-U.S. security relationship,” a senior Japanese Defence Ministry official told a joint news conference with U.S. Missile Defense Agency chief Lt. General Henry Obering on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
Television pictures showed the interceptor soaring through the sky, leaving a grey vapour trail. Images from a sensor showed two objects colliding, and U.S. and Japanese military personnel were shown cheering and clapping after the test.
The interceptor was fired by the Kongo, the first of four Japanese destroyers due to be outfitted to counter missiles that could carry chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.
By intercepting a missile similar in speed and size to those in North Korea’s arsenal, “Japan has proven its capability to defend and protect their country from North Korean missiles,” said Riki Ellison, a prominent missile-defense advocate who monitored the test.
Japan’s Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba welcomed the success, but warned that work remained to be done.
“We are taking one step at a time. Just because it worked this time doesn’t mean we can rely on it 100 percent,” he told reporters in Tokyo, adding that the military would continue to try to improve reliability.
The test involved a shipboard detection and tracking tool called Aegis built by Lockheed Martin Corp and the Standard Missile-3 interceptor produced by Raytheon Co.
The medium-range target missile was launched from a U.S. range on Kauai. The SM-3 intercepted it about three minutes later, a joint U.S.-Japanese announcement said.
The Kongo, armed with its SM-3 interceptors, will return to Japan to complement ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles already installed in Japan.
The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is building a multibillion-dollar layered shield it says is designed to defeat warheads that could be fired by Iran or North Korea. Japan is the leading U.S. partner in the effort, involved in joint research and development, including for a more advanced interceptor.
In addition, the U.S. and Japanese navies have worked out common tactics, techniques and procedures for their Aegis-equipped ships to shoot down enemy missiles, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet said last week.
Such cooperation has angered Beijing, which fears it could help the United States defend Taiwan if China used force to try to bring the self-governing island under mainland rule.
The Kongo “is emblematic of a complex weave of U.S. and Japanese anti-missile capabilities,” said Paul Giarra, a former Pentagon senior country director for Japan who inaugurated a U.S.-Japan missile-defense working group in the early 1990s.
“Any system that can check China’s growing ballistic missile clout is problematic for Beijing,” he added.
The test comes at a problematic time for defence relations between Tokyo and Washington, who have only just resolved a dispute over funding of U.S. bases in Japan. Tokyo’s powerful opposition party also forced Japan to halt a marine refuelling operation in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan.
Last week a Japanese naval officer was arrested on suspicion of leaking information about the Aegis system, although the data does not appear to have been passed outside the military.
Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo; Editing by Alan Elsner and Mike Miller