A High Tech Missile Standoff Is Coming to East Asia

In the face of Pyongyang's stubborn pursuit of a ballistic missile launch next month, North Korea's neighbors are vowing to blow the rocket out of the sky.

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In the face of Pyongyang's stubborn pursuit of a ballistic missile launch next month, North Korea's neighbors are vowing to blow the rocket out of the sky. Already, Japan and South Korea are readying their militaries for a high tech missile showdown in a battlefield that extends beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Today, Japan's defense minister Naoki Tanaka called on interceptor missile units to prepare to takedown North Korea's Taepodong-2, a three-stage rocket capable of launching a nuclear warhead into space and even hitting Hawaii or Alaska. (The Reuters image to the right shows the launch of Pyongyang's Taepodong-2 rocket in April 2009.) "We must be fully prepared to protect the safety of our nation," Tanaka said, according to  the Associated Press. Officials tell the news service that in preparation for the launch, Japan will "send three AEGIS-equipped destroyers to the Pacific and East China Sea and deploy mobile Patriot missile launchers to islands in Okinawa." In addition, an interceptor missile unit will be readied in Tokyo even though the rocket shouldn't land anywhere near the capital. These interceptor missiles have been successfully tested but they've never been put to use in the real-world—something Japan says could be necessary if the rocket strays off course and threatens its population areas. In practice, the "interceptor missiles on the Japanese destroyers would serve as the first line of defense," reports the AP,  "and the land-based Patriot missiles would be a backup."

Meanwhile, South Korea warned on Monday that it will also shoot down the rocket if it strays into its airspace. “We are studying measures such as tracking and shooting down (parts) of a North Korean missile in case they stray out of their normal trajectory," said Yoon Won-shik, a vice spokesman at the Defense Ministry. “We cannot help viewing (the launch) as a very reckless, provocative act”

But North Korea doesn't seem to be taking the threat seriously. Today, Korea's state media organ, KCNA, said that the country maintains that "a morotorium on long-range missile launches does not include satellite launches for peaceful purposes." Responding to President Obama's pleas to call off the launch, it said the president has "the wrong conception" of what it's doing.

So how easily would Japan be able to take down North Korea's rocket? Joe Pappalardo at Popular Mechanics says a number of factors will come into play. "Missile defense works in layers," he writes. "The first layer is a fight in space, led by Japanese destroyers armed with SM-3 interceptors. These weapons deploy a kill vehicle into space that use the launching ship's targeting data and long-wave infrared seeker to hunt down the missile as it streaks outside the Earth's atmosphere. It kills the missile with a kamikaze plunge into its path. Japan says it will deploy three destroyers with SM-3s in response to the threat of a North Korean test."

It's very possible that the first line of defense could fail. If that happens, that's where the land-based interceptors come into play, targetting the dummy payload or leftover parts from the rocket as it reenters the atmosphere. (The Reuters image to the left shows the launch of a Standard Missile from a Japanese AEGIS Destroyer.) "These Patriot Advanced Capability-3 systems use millimeter wave guidance to track and collide with cruise and ballistic missiles," writes Pappalardo. While no one knows if North Korea will go through on its pledge to launch the rocket, Pappalardo says if it does, a "counter-strike is almost guaranteed."

As it stands, North Korea's launch is slated for April 15.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.