Japan urged to export missile interceptors to 3rd parties

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates prodded Japan earlier this week to export a new type of missile interceptor currently under joint development by Japan and the United States to third countries such as European nations, sources close to Japan-U.S. relations said Friday.

Gates' request could lead to a further relaxation of Japan's decades-long arms embargo policy, which could spark a chorus of opposition from pacifist elements in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and one of its coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party.

Gates made the request during talks with Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa on Wednesday, the sources said.

The interceptor in question is the Standard Missile-3 Block 2A missile, an advanced version of the SM-3 series, which is to be deployed on warships.

Japan's arms embargo policy bans the country from exporting weapons or arms technology, except to the United States with which the country is tied through a bilateral security pact.

Gates' request followed President Barack Obama's announcement in September that the United States is abandoning plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe and adopting a new approach to anti-missile defense.

During his talks with Kitazawa, Gates called for a relaxation of Japan's arms embargo policy and prodded Japan to pave the way for exports of the new interceptors to third countries, such as European nations, the sources said.

Kitazawa refrained from answering directly, telling Gates that the Japanese government would study the request as it is an internal matter for Japan, according to the sources.

The United States currently plans to begin deploying SM-3 Block 2A missiles in 2018. Japan's foreign and defense ministries believe it would be difficult to reject Gates' request, the sources said.

In December 2004, Japan and the United States signed an agreement for bilateral cooperation on a ballistic missile defense system. At the time, Japan exempted exports to the United States of missile interceptors to be jointly developed by the two countries from its arms embargo policy.

Following an agreement on the joint development of a new missile interceptor, Japan and the United States exchanged diplomatic documents on banning the transfer of the interceptor to third parties or its use for purposes other than originally intended without Japan's agreement in advance.

The sources said Japan would probably be forced to exempt the supply of missile interceptors to third countries from its arms embargo policy or to give its nod in advance as stated in the documents.

The United States is hoping for an answer to Gates' request from Japan by the end of 2010 and envisages that Japan would export the new interceptors to European countries such as Germany, the sources said.

SM-3 interceptors are designed for launch from warships equipped with the sophisticated Aegis air defense system against intermediate ballistic missiles.

Japan began deploying the U.S.-developed SM-3 Block-1 interceptors on its Aegis destroyers in fiscal 2007 that ended in March 2008.

In fiscal 2006, Japan and the United States began to jointly develop the SM-3 Block-2A, an advanced version with improved targeting accuracy.

Japan is developing the core part of the interceptor that protects an infrared ray sensor from heat generated by air friction, while the United States is in charge of developing the warhead, called the Kinetic projectile, which would hit and destroy an enemy ballistic missile.

Japan's arms embargo policy dates back to 1967 when then Prime Minister Eisaku Sato declared a ban on weapons exports to communist states, countries to which the United Nations bans such exports and parties to international conflicts.

Japan tightened the policy in 1976 when then Prime Minister Takeo Miki imposed an almost blanket ban on the export of weapons. But in 1983, Japan exempted exports of weapons technology to the United States from that policy.

Gates visited Japan on Tuesday and Wednesday. He was the first U.S. Cabinet member to visit Japan after the launch in September of Japan's new government led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

(Distributed by Kyodo News on Oct. 24, 2009)