The Trump administration has approved a $133.3 million missile defense sale to Japan to meet the escalating threat from North Korea — by shooting down the rogue nation’s own ballistic missiles. The State Department says Congress was notified Tuesday of the proposed sale of four missiles for the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor. A State Department official told Fox News that, “Also included are four Mk 29 missile canisters, and other technical, engineering and logistics support services.” The department said the sale would support the U.S. defense industry and underscore Trump’s commitment to improve the defense of allies threatened by North Korea. The system was jointly developed by Japan and the U.S. The missiles could be used at sea with Japan’s current Aegis-equipped destroyers and with the land-based Aegis system its Cabinet approved for purchase last month. That’s intended to bolster Japan’s current missile defense and perhaps curry favor with President Donald Trump who is eager for U.S. allies to buy more American military hardware. “If concluded, this proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States,” the State Department official told Fox News. “It will bolster the security of a major treaty ally that has been, and continues to be, a force for political stability and economic progress in the Asia-Pacific region. It will also improve (Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s) interoperability with U.S. missile defense systems, and increase the protection for U.S. installations in the region.”
Satellite photography reportedly shows that North Korea is preparing its Punggye-ri nuclear test site for another detonation, probably timed to coincide with celebrations of national founder Kim Il-sung’s 105th birthday this weekend. Reuters reports that North Korean officials told foreign journalists in Pyongyang to prepare for a “big and important event” on Thursday. This proved to be a considerable letdown when the journalists were merely conducted to the opening of a new street in the middle of Pyongyang, but it is always possible the North Koreans are playing coy with journalists. The report of activity at Punggye-ri comes from monitoring group 38 North, which said the site was “primed and ready” after detecting the movement of vehicles and personnel. The sort of activity they described seems consistent with preparation, rather than a frenzy of activity that would indicate an imminent detonation. 38 North analyst Joseph Bermudez, who has a good track record of predicting Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, told CNN the activity noted over the past six weeks is “suggestive of the final preparations of a test.” In particular, 38 North analysts thought the end of excavation and water pumping at the site were indicators that it could be put to use soon. Fox News cites South Korean officials saying they “saw no signs that North Korea was preparing any sort of provocative actions,” although they acknowledged that North Korea has demonstrated the ability to conduct missile tests with very little warning. Japan added another reason for concern, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a session of his parliament, “There is a possibility that North Korea already has a capability to deliver missiles with sarin as warheads.” Sarin is the nerve agent suspected of deployment in the chemical weapons attack in Syria last week. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam was allegedly killed with a different chemical weapon, VX, at the Kuala Lumpur airport in February. Interestingly, China’s Communist Party organ, the Global Times, published an editorial calling on North Korea to suspend its nuclear activities, coupled with a promise that China will “actively work to protect the security of a denuclearised North Korean nation and regime.” China has previously promoted a deal in which North Korea would suspend nuclear tests if the United States agreed to halt military drills with South Korea, but there was little interest in the deal from either side. In fact, the United States Air Force launched a surprise exercise of air power in Japan on Thursday, which was seen as a demonstration to North Korea of what the Air Force’s largest combat-ready wing can do on short notice. China is still advocating for a non-violent resolution to the North Korean nuclear situation. The Trump administration is talking about using unprecedented sanctions to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, potentially instituting what one official described to Reuters as “essentially a trade quarantine on North Korea.” The measures under consideration could include “an oil embargo, banning its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang,” according to the officials who spoke to Reuters. Other possibilities include interdicting North Korean freighters, prohibiting the use of North Korean contract labor abroad, implementing a global ban on coal, or banning North Korea’s seafood exports. Some of these steps would not require U.N. approval, which means China would not be able to veto them. China has been remarkably tough in enforcing its own punitive ban on North Korean coal exports, but Trump administration officials worried Beijing might have gone as far as it’s willing to go. It is considered something of a gamble to menace Chinese interests with the secondary effects of tough sanction against North Korea and hope it inspires them to bring Pyongyang to heel, instead of alienating the Chinese. “China has always opposed the use of unilateral sanctions in international relations and is firmly opposed when such unilateral sanctions harm China’s interests,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a press briefing.
A Japanese spacecraft’s long-awaited Venus campaign is finally about to begin. Japan’s Akatsuki probe was originally supposed to arrive at Venus in December 2010, but an engine failure caused the spacecraft to miss its target and zoom off into orbit around the sun. But this past December, Akatsuki’s handlers managed to guide the craft back to Venus, and now the probe is just about ready to start science operations. “Akatsuki has been performing test observations by turning on its onboard observation instruments one by one,” Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) officials wrote in an update on Friday (April 1). “The instruments are starting up normally, and we have already conducted successful observations that are equivalent to a ‘minimum success,'” they added. “Thus we will move to regular operations in mid-April.” The $300 million Akatsuki spacecraft, whose name means “dawn” in Japanese, was designed to study Venus’ clouds, weather and atmosphere up close using six different instruments. The probe’s observations should help researchers better understand how Venus, which may have been quite Earth-like billions of years ago, became so hot and seemingly inhospitable to life, JAXA officials have said. The original plan called for Akatsuki to orbit Venus once every 30 hours, at a maximum distance (apoapsis) of about 50,000 miles. But the second-chance run at Venus put the probe in a 13-day orbit that took Akatsuki as far as 273,000 miles from the planet’s surface, JAXA officials said. Over the past few months, Akatsuki has been working to get to a less elliptical orbit; JAXA has stated that it wants the probe to be in a nine-day orbit with an apoapsis of about 193,000 miles by the time regular operations begin. Akatsuki should still be able to accomplish most of its original science goals from such an orbit, JAXA officials have said. The vessel launched in May 2010 along with JAXA’s Ikaros probe, which became the first spacecraft ever to deploy and use a solar sail in interplanetary space.
Japan on Wednesday condemned Pyongyang’s plan to launch a space rocket, calling it a thinly disguised test of a long-distance ballistic missile. The government ordered Aegis ballistic missile defense warships of the Maritime Self-Defense Force and land-based Patriot PAC-3 rocket units to respond should projections show components falling in Japanese territory. “This will effectively mean the firing of a ballistic missile. It would be a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and a grave, provocative act against the security of our country,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a Lower House session Wednesday. “Japan, in cooperation with the United States and South Korea, will strongly urge North Korea to refrain from (conducting) the launch,” Abe said. On Tuesday night, North Korea notified the International Maritime Organization that it plans to send a “satellite” into orbit between Feb. 8 and 25. It said the launch will take place on one of those days between 7:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Japan time. Pyongyang conducted a fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6. The planned launch is widely seen as both a test and a demonstration of its advances in rocketry. Feb. 16 is the birthday of late leader Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un. Observers believe the launch window has been set around the day for domestic purposes — to bolster the nation’s morale.
The Japanese government formally protested the entry of an armed Chinese government ship and two other vessels into waters that Japan claims as its own on Saturday, according to an official in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is the first time that an armed Chinese vessel has intruded into the areas that Japan’s claims as its territory, the official said. The vessel was formerly a People’s Liberation Army Navy ship and is now operated by another department, according to the official, who asked not to be identified, citing government policy. The ship is armed with an auto-cannon, although the main armament has been removed, the official said. The three vessels approached waters north of Kuba Island from around 8:19 a.m. local time, entering Japanese territorial waters starting from 9:30 a.m. and left by 10:50 a.m., according to e-mailed coast guard statements. The armed vessel was the same one that the coast guard reported on Dec. 22 was sailing in waters 28 kilometers (17 miles) east-north-east of one of the islands, according to a coast guard official, who asked not to be named, citing government policy. Kuba Island is among East China Sea islands whose sovereignty is disputed by Japan and China. Ships from both nations have been tailing one another in the area since Japan bought three of the uninhabited islands from a private owner in 2012. The dispute is among the biggest diplomatic issues between the two nations. The islands are known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. The Japanese government protested to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo and to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, according to the foreign affairs ministry official. The entry of the three ships on Saturday was the 139th time that Chinese government vessels have entered Japan’s waters since September 2012, the official said. When Japan’s coast guard warned the Chinese to leave its territorial waters Saturday, they responded by saying that the Japanese vessel was in Chinese waters and should leave immediately, Kyodo reported. This is the 35th time this year that vessels of the Chinese government have entered Japan’s territorial waters, according to Kyodo. Japan’s cabinet approved a record defense budget Dec. 24 amid China’s increasing military activity in the region. The 5.1 trillion yen ($42 billion) package is an increase of 1.5 percent from the current fiscal year ending March, marking the fourth straight annual gain under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It accounts for just over 5 percent of the overall 96.7 trillion yen budget for next fiscal year, also approved Dec. 24. While Abe has denied Japan will send maritime forces to back up U.S. navigation exercises in the South China Sea, he’s said he supports the freedom-of-navigation operations that are challenging China’s claims to one of the world’s busiest waterways.
Definitely something to keep an eye on…
Japan’s air force said on Wednesday said jet fighter scrambles have reached a level not seen since the height of the Cold War three decades ago as Russian bombers probe its northern skies and Chinese combat aircraft intrude into its southern air space. In the year ending March 31, Japanese fighters scrambled 944 times, 16 percent more than the same period the previous year, the country’s Self Defence Force said. That is the second highest number of encounters ever recorded over the 12-month period since records began in 1958 and only one less than a record 944 scrambles in 1984. “It represents a sharp increase,” an SDF spokesman said at a press briefing. While not a direct measure of Russian and Chinese military activity, the numbers nonetheless point to an increase in operations by Japan’s two big neighbors. While coping with the growing military might of a more assertive China which is increasing defense outlays by more than 10 percent a year, Japan is also contending with a military resurgence of a Cold War foe that has gathered pace since Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from the Ukraine last year. Japan too is upping defense spending, albeit by a smaller margin, to buy new equipment, including longer-range patrol aircraft, cargo jets, helicopter carriers and troop carrying Boeing V-22 Ospreys and Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters. A non-fiscal boost to military capability will also come from plans by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to loosen constitutional constraints on his nation’s defense forces that will allow them to operate more freely overseas and to deepen cooperation with U.S. forces. Russian bombers and patrol planes often enter Japan’s air space close to Japan’s northern Hokkaido island and close to four smaller islands which are claimed both by Japan and Russia. That territorial dispute has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a formal peace treaty. The Russian aircraft commonly fly circuitous routes around the Japanese archipelago. Chinese fighter incursions are concentrated in the East China Sea, close to disputed uninhabited islets near Taiwan that Tokyo claims as the Senkaku islands and Beijing dubs the Diaoyu islands. In the past year, an increased number of Chinese planes have flown through Japanese air space into the Western Pacific, the SDF spokesman said.
Something to keep an eye on.. We have an alliance with Japan. So, if something were to happen, we have a treaty with them. I was in Japan a couple years ago participating in the annual “Yama Sakura” exercise which is a joint U.S./Japan military exercise.
The island nation of Palau is preparing for a visit from Japan’s Emperor Akihito next week with an unusual and grim task: It’s investigating long-sealed caves on the island of Peleliu to look for the remains of Japanese soldiers from World War II. The remains of six soldiers have been discovered so far, but that’s just the start. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports they were found in one of about 200 sealed caves on Peleliu. An estimated 10,000 Japanese men were killed in a weeks-long battle with US troops during the war, and the bodies of 2,600 of them were never found. The Japanese used a network of caves and tunnels during the 1944 fighting, recounts the Telegraph, and largely “staged their defense” from within the caves. About 1,600 American troops were killed, but the US military blew up many of the caves (essentially sealing the Japanese within) and eventually gained control. The six newly found bodies were found in the vicinity of an anti-tank gun, and “it’s my understanding that those [bodies] were the crew, perhaps the officer and his men that were manning that gun,” says one of the search officials. “A number of US soldiers died in that vicinity as well.” The task is painstaking because searchers need to guard against booby traps or the detonation of old munitions. An interesting side note from the Telegraph: Some 35 Japanese soldiers who had been hiding in the caves surrendered in April 1947—more than a year after the war’s end.