Photo/IllutrationThe U.S. Army's Sagami General Depot in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture (Satoru Semba)

  • Photo/Illustraion

SAGAMIHARA, Kanagawa Prefecture--U.S. forces in Japan established a missile defense command near Tokyo on Oct. 31 that is close to a bustling train station here, triggering local protests over a lack of prior consultation about the move.

The command of the U.S. Army's 38th Air Defense Artillery Brigade has been located at the Sagami General Depot near JR Sagamihara Station. It said 115 personnel will eventually be deployed there within six to 12 months after the first members arrived on Oct. 16.

A ceremony to mark the occasion was held at U.S. Army Camp Zama that spans the cities of Zama and Sagamihara.

The U.S. military said the facility will take over the command of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system based in Guam at some point.

Local residents and authorities were only informed of the decision in September, sparking protests.

The unit has command and control of three missile defense batteries in Japan: the Shariki Communications Site in Aomori Prefecture and Kyogamisaki Communications Site in Kyoto Prefecture that both operate portable, early-warning X-band radar, and a battalion at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture that has ground-to-air Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3).

Those units previously belonged to a headquarters in Hawaii.

At the Oct. 31 ceremony, Commander Viet Luong of the U.S. Army, Japan, said, the 38th Air Defense Artillery Brigade will enhance the missile defense capabilities in Japan.

Experts cited the possible threat of missile strikes from North Korea and China as the primary factor behind the move.

It is also understood that the defense command will coordinate with ship-to-air SM-3 interceptor missiles on U.S. Navy Aegis warships.

The Kanagawa prefectural government and Sagamihara city authorities were only informed about the establishment of the new headquarters by the Japanese government in late September. Those entities have demanded a full explanation of what functions will be carried out and how the facility will operate.

In October, the city government lodged an official complaint with the ministers of defense and foreign affairs that said it was “disappointing to suddenly find out" about the setting up of the headquarters without "prior consultation.” The statement added that “we cannot help questioning (the legitimacy of having a missile defense headquarters) at a depot that is responsible for military logistics.”

City authorities sought assurances that the facility would not be permanent or its functions enhanced.

A civic group held a protest campaign Oct. 31 calling for a retraction of the decision to establish the command at Sagami General Depot.

The missile defense headquarters is expected to advance the integration of Japan-U.S. missile defense systems.

The current system used by Japan's Self-Defense Forces that is designed primarily to protect Japan from North Korean ballistic missile strikes consists of Aegis ship-to-air missiles based in the Sea of Japan and ground-to-air missile units.

As part of efforts to upgrade its defense capability, the SDF intends to deploy the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system, for which U.S. Army radar data is essential.

The new headquarters will not result in speedier information-sharing, compared with when Japan and U.S. forces were coordinating through the headquarters in Hawaii.

However, Narushige Michishita, a professor of security study at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, pointed out the new headquarters will allow to two sides to have “closer consultations under normal conditions to prepare for instant decision-making for interceptions in emergencies."

A senior Defense Ministry official stated that if a missile was launched from North Korea or China toward Japan, "the subject of defense would switch from Japan to the United States based on distance and range."

The official said it is only natural to have a new headquarters that can be a part of that transition.

(This article was written by Shigeo Yoshimura and Naotaka Fujita.)