The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer Kongou. Equipped with the Aegis radar system and SM-3 missiles, the Kongou conducted the first successful intercept of a ballistic missile by a non-U.S. ship, in a test off Hawaii on 17 December. The Kongou is the first of four Japanese destroyers to be outfitted for ballistic missile defense ( photo).
Michigan Senator Carl Levin won’t be happy, but allied missile defense efforts reached another important milestone yesterday.

In a test conducted off Hawaii, the Japanese Navy destroyer Kongou successfully shot down a mock ballistic missile in space, using a U.S.-made SM-3 interceptor missile. The event marked the first time that an allied naval vessel has intercepted–and destroyed–a ballistic missile target. The Kongou and three other Japanese destroyers are equipped with the Aegis radar system and SM-3 missiles that are also found on U.S. vessels. The radar allows the vessel to track missile targets at long ranges and destroy them at high altitude, using the SM-3.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency provides details of yesterday’s intercept:

“In the test, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, a mid-range ballistic missile was launched from a U.S. military range on Kauai Island at 12:05 p.m. (Hawaii Time). The [Japanese] Maritime Self Defense Force’s Kongou, sailing in waters several hundred kilometers away, detected it and fired an SM-3 about four minutes later.

About three minutes later, the interceptor reached an altitude of more than 100 km in space and destroyed the target, according to officials.

The Kongou and its sister ships are slated to receive the SM-3 and other missile defense upgrades by 2010. With those capabilities, the destroyers will form the upper tier of Japan’s missile defense system, engaging targets at long range and high altitude. Land-based Patriot missile batteries form the lower tier of the anti-missile shield, providing point defense of high-value targets.

Yesterday’s test–and the destroyer upgrade–are more evidence of how seriously Tokyo views the missile threat from its neighbors, China and North Korea. The Japanese cabinet decided to enter the U.S. missile shield program in 2003, after Pyongyang and Beijing fielded new, longer-range systems capable of striking targets throughout Japan. Plans to modify the destroyers for missile defense were actually accelerated, after North Korea conducted another round of missile tests in 2006.

Japan is also upgrading its Patriot batteries to the new PAC-3 standard, enhancing their ability to intercept ballistic missiles. At least two PAC-3 batteries have already been deployed, and nine other air bases will receive the new missiles by 2010.

Ironically, the successful Japanese test comes as U.S. missile defense programs face an uncertain future. As we’ve detailed in previous posts, Congressional Democrats (led by Senator Levin) are attempting to gut missile defense efforts, claiming that such programs are “destablizing” and the technology is unproven.

Such arguments ring hollow. Someone should ask Mr. Levin and his colleagues what is more destablizing: Japan defending itself against missile attack, or Pyongyang and Beijing fielding new generations of missiles, each more capable of reaching targets at longer range, and much more accurately than in the past. Those developments underscore the wisdom and far-sightedness of Japan’s missile defense program. Sadly, Senator Levin (and other Congressional Democrats) are obviously lacking in those qualities.

By andrei