Aegis Destroyers and Ballistic Missile Defense in Japan and South Korea

The Aegis combat system is quickly becoming the hallmark of sophisticated navies. Specifically, it is an advanced command and control, and an integrated weapons system, which features anti-submarine warfare systems, anti-aircraft warfare systems, the Phalanx CIWS to defend against anti-ship missiles, and Mark 41 Vertical Launch system. Simply put, Aegis uses high-powered computers and radar to track and guide weapons to enemy targets. It was developed by RCA, which was sold to various other American electronics corporations before being absorbed by Lockheed Martin which currently produces the systems. The US Navy has employed the Aegis system on its ships since the 1980s; it is also deployed by the navies of Spain, Norway, Japan, and South Korea. Australia and NATO forces intend to employ the system in the next few years to bolster their missile defense capabilities.

South Korea

ROK bought Standard Missile (SM)-2s in 2009 which would ultimately be used on Aegis destroyers. Aegis ships also have SPY-1D radar designed for early warning. In 2012 ROK also purchased Green Pine  land-based radar from Israel. South Korea’s Aegis ship is the Sejong Daewang (“Sejong The Great”) Class destroyer, aka KDX-III (Korean Destroyer III): a guided missile destroyer, jointly produced by Lockheed Martin and Hyundai Heavy Industries. The KDX-III is nearly identical to the American Arleigh Burke Class destroyer, except for its longer hull which makes it the largest surface ship in the world to carry the Aegis system. Though the ROK’s destroyers carry the Aegis radar tracking software they do not currently have interceptors. The ROK announced this past summer that it would upgrade from SM-2s to SM-6s by 2016, and a budget proposal accepted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff shows plans to procure three additional Aegis destroyers by 2020.

Japan

Japan’s BMD is comprised of six SM-3 missiles on their four Aegis destroyers, and the PAC-3 Patriot system. Tokyo is increasing the number of SM-3s from six to eight over the next ten years.

Last year PAC-3 was deployed in Okinawa and Tokyo’s Ministry of Defense HQ in a symbolic demonstration of capability, obviously not practical as using the missiles would, for instance, shatter every window in Shinjuku. Similar demonstrations of defense capability were made in 2009 and 2012 during North Korean missile threats.

Such demonstrations are more show than substance. Japan has other concerns aside from North Korean aggression: stagnant economy, territorial disputes with China, the Fukishima fallout, and the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea which is seen as far more pressing than the DPRK nuclear/missile threat, and the assurance of US alliance makes BMD even less of a priority—yet, the Japanese have still chosen to keep those four very expensive Aegis-equipped boats.

Regional dynamics

Japan has a high level of cooperation with the US, not least of which involved the US-Japan Defense Pact and the high assurance value of American military exercises in the region. This starkly contrasts to the minimal cooperation in missile defense between South Korea and Japan, and between South Korea and the US. While the Japanese are content with relying on the Americans for missile defense, South Korea is moving toward an increasingly independent missile defense system.

Ballistic Missile Defense and Satellite Launches

North Korea’s missile programme and China’s accelerating space programme have increased interest in Japan and South Korea’s space activities. Japan successfully launched its first satellite carried on an indigenous rocket in February 2005 after several failures throughout the 1990s, and South Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit in January 2013.

Satellite launches are extremely similar to ballistic missile launches and employ much of the same technology. Japan’s and South Korea’s abilities to successfully launch a satellite indicate the probable ability of each state to launch long-range ballistic missiles with WMD payloads. While both Japan and South Korea are politically prohibited from launching long-range ballistic missiles (Japan by its self-defense constitution and ROK by its agreements with the Americans), each state could probably develop long-range missiles using existing satellite technology should their political inclinations shift in that direction.