Should Japan buy the Arrow-3 missile defense system from Israel? Would Israel sell it to Japan? These are critical questions because Japan’s missile defense capabilities today are severely limited.
Japan has the US THAAD system, and it has Patriot PAC-3. Japan also has the Aegis naval BMD featuring the latest SM-3 (RIM-161) Block II-A missiles that can hit tactical ballistic missiles.
But none of these systems are ideal as the North Korean missile threat continues to ramp up, and as North Korea continues to pursue atomic and hydrogen bombs that can be mounted on a long-range missile.
The latest development was the successful launch of an ICBM-like missile by North Korea. Luckily, observers say that the missile’s nose-cone broke up on reentering the atmosphere indicating that the North Koreans may not yet have good reentry technology for the warheads of its exoatmospheric long-range missiles.
In any case, until North Korea can actually run a successful test series of an atomic nuclear warhead on reentry, there is no way to judge accuracy and reliability. This means it will be some time before North Korea really poses a nuclear missile threat unless, of course the North Korean’s get help from China or Russia. Anyone looking at the North Korean displays of missile prowess, or the test firings must come away with the strong sense that North Korea is getting a lot of outside help in their missile development.
The US has been silent about the various transfers of technology to North Korea, perhaps for diplomatic reasons. But the practical consequence is that the timetable of the North Korean threat depends on whether or not these under-the-table transactions continue. (We must always keep in mind that as relations between the US and Russia, and US and China deteriorate, the likelihood of technology transfers increases.)
Meanwhile the US, South Korea and Japan need to prepare for the coming danger, whether it is in a year or two or further out in time. Given the proximity of South Korea and Japan to the threat, warning time is minimal and there is no way to tell whether the launch is a test or an actual attack.
THAAD as an air defense system can tackle intermediate range ballistic missiles, but only in the terminal phase of their flight. Because the US uses a hit to kill technology (meaning that the THAAD interceptor missile must actual hit the incoming missile, not just explode somewhat near the missile), accuracy is everything but it is difficult in the final stages of flight because of wobbling by the incoming missile and due to winds and other atmospheric conditions affecting the THAAD interceptor. That may explain why THAAD tests have only been partially successful.
The Israeli Arrow 3 system is different. Supported by the Israeli contractor Israel Aerospace Industries and by Israel’s IMI Systems both partnering with Boeing in the United States, Arrow 3 is an evolved system with sophisticated long-range radars and command and control systems. Arrow 3 is the only ballistic missile defense system that has shot down an enemy rocket hundreds of miles from where it was launched. Unlike THAAD, the Israeli Arrow 3 is an exoatmospheric system that can hit an enemy missile above 100 km and at a range of more than 2,400 km (60+ miles altitude, around 1,500 miles distant).
It turns out that the Arrow 3 range is perfect to meet Japan’s requirements for missile defense. Arrow 3 has a special type of hit to kill system that does not have the limitations of THAAD. (The earlier version of Arrow had a proximity warhead, better suited to lower altitude hits.)
Japan should consider seriously buying Arrow 3, but it will probably require a deal with the United States and Israel where Arrow would be under the security control of the United States. Israel rightly worries deeply about any compromises to its strategic systems, and Japan has a poor internal security infrastructure that is not good enough to provide the needed assurances to either the US or Israel. However, if the security issue can be bridged than Japan would be well-served by Arrow 3.
Indeed, as the North Koreans may have to enter into a warhead testing program that is a much greater threat than missile tests with dummy warheads, the US, Japan and South Korea must think seriously about disrupting North Korea’s testing program. One way to do that is to shoot down North Korea’s test flight missiles. THAAD may not be able to do the job, nor will Aegis and certainly not Patriot. Arrow 3 is the only defensive system around that is likely to knock out North Korea’s test flights and, inter alia perhaps convince the North Korean’s that their missile-nuclear gambit is a clear and present danger to their survival.