TOKYO – Japan began deploying its first advanced Patriot missile defense system Friday near Tokyo, part of an effort to accelerate missile defense capabilities following North Korea's missile and nuclear tests last year.
The installment comes about a year earlier than originally scheduled.
Two PAC-3 launchers, brought in on about 10 military trucks, arrived at the Iruma Self-Defense Force base in Saitama, just north of Tokyo, just before dawn. Japan plans to deploy about 30 mobile PAC-3 launchers at 10 military bases across the country through 2010.
The Patriots would be used as a last resort if interceptors fired from U.S. or Japanese ships fail to knock out incoming missiles. Japan will begin introducing Standard Missile-3 interceptors on its destroyers over the next few years as part of that effort.
Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma welcomed Friday's deployment.
"We will continue to improve our preparedness by steadily achieving deployment plans that are coming up," he said.
The Patriot surface-to-air missiles offer protection for a relatively limited area — about a 60-mile radius. They work on a hit-to-kill basis as the target missile is making its descent toward its target, rather than intercepting the target at a higher altitude earlier in its flight.
Japan stepped up its missile defenses after North Korea shot a ballistic missile over its main island in 1998. Tokyo decided to further accelerate the building of its missile shield following North Korea's test of long-range ballistic missiles in July and its nuclear test in October.
Last month, the U.S. military deployed a newly operational detachment of Patriot missiles at a base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, where most of the roughly 50,000 American troops in the country are based.
The missiles are believed to cost roughly US$2 million apiece.
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., which makes the PAC-3, said in January that it expects to expand its ballistic missile defense business overseas in the next few years as regions such as Asia face growing missile threats from North Korea and other hostile states.
Lockheed officials said South Korea and Taiwan have expressed interest in buying the latest version of the Patriot missile. India and some countries in the Middle East may also eventually buy the program, the company said.