PAC3s in Tokyo: toothless defence?

Pyongyang’s announcement at the end of March that it would send a Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 satellite into orbit immediately raised tensions in the region. The US and its regional allies Japan and South Korea were particularly alarmed by what they saw as a cover for a ballistic missile test. All three countries put their missile defence systems on high alert. Japan even positioned PAC-3 systems in the heart of Tokyo, raising questions about the reason and the effectiveness of deploying such batteries in the middle of a metropolis.

Japan is not known for its strong military posture, given its restrictive post-war constitution. Yet the country took stern  measures in response to the latest North Korean missile crisis. Perhaps with good reason. In 1998 North Korea launched a ballistic missile right over Honshu (Japan’s main island).

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

With the events of 14 years ago in mind, Defence Minister Naoki Tanaka issued orders to deploy ground based PAC3 missile stations in Okinawa – along the expected flight path of the missile – and in Tokyo. Additionally, 3 Aegis-destroyers with a ballistic missile interception capability were positioned in the East China Sea.

The deployments and interception orders raised some eyebrows. Questions evolved over the true reasons behind the JSDF-mission. Domestic political motivations could play a role, as Tanaka is not a popular politician. Before North Korea’s launch, a retired senior diplomat told me: “deploying missile defence systems makes little sense. Positioning them in and around Tokyo is pure grandstanding.”

With its terrible approval rating, the cabinet of Prime Minister Noda needs some positive media attention. Indeed, one wonders: was the deployment of PAC3-missiles in Tokyo more aimed at winning hearts and minds at home, than as an effective military defence against a ballistic missile threat?

The PAC3s were positioned on the grounds of the Defence Ministry in Ichigaya. The batteries could be seen from the public road, as they were placed on this baseball field, right behind this gate. In these Google Maps images, as in numerous media photos (like this one), it’s clear for everyone to see the PAC3 batteries were placed in the direct vicinity of various tall buildings and a very high communication tower. The highrise district of Shinjuku is just over a kilometre away.

A subject matter expert at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS) said such tall buildings in the line of fire of a PAC3 launch station can negatively impact operational effectiveness.

“NATO countries working with the same missile type use a safety zone of at least 80 meters around the launch stations to protect objects or equipment from the launch blast. The windows of the buildings immediately behind the launchers could shatter because of the shock wave. Other multi-story office buildings and a tall communication tower in the line of fire of the launchers lead to a high risk the PAC3 missiles will not leave the launcher at engagement, causing a misfire against incoming targets,” the expert explained.

Upon closer inspection of publicly available photos of the PAC3 launch stations in Tokyo, the same source noted another extraordinary element – camouflage tarpaulin covering the missile canisters. “This is highly unusual,” the Hague-based expert said. “When a missile is launched, the camouflage cover could instantly catch fire, with great risk to the remaining missiles on the launcher.” Most other PAC3-operating countries don’t cover ready-for-use missile canisters with camouflage tarpaulin. “It just doesn’t make sense. Perhaps the camouflage was even meant to hide “DUMMY” or “INERT”–markings on the canisters, an indication for training missiles,” the expert said.

However, though the tall buildings near the launch site and camouflage tarpaulin covering the missile canisters may indeed point to the deployment of fake missiles on the Defence Ministry grounds in Tokyo, other evidence points to the contrary. The HCSS-expert continued: “On images like these, yellow dots can be seen on the canister lids.” Such yellow dots usually indicate the presence of high explosives and carry a similar meaning among armed forces worldwide. In this case indicating the presence of real (“live”) missiles.

In another media photo, the expert noted the JSDF put up blast walls behind the launch stations in Tokyo. “Like the yellow dots, the presence of blast walls also doesn’t fit the pattern of deploying dummy missiles,” the expert said.

Whatever may be the reason behind the divergent operational characteristics of the PAC3 deployment in Tokyo, the missile defence units deployed in Ichigaya can return to base after North Korea’s failed missile launch on Friday. With the new North Korean missile that was paraded days later during one of Pyongyang’s signature military parades, no-one knows if and when the JSDF will be ordered to resume its defensive posture on short notice.

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