US And Pacific Allies Prepare For North Korean Rocket Launch

April 7, 2012: Unha-3 satellite launcher positioned on the launch pad at Tongchang ri, west of Pyong Yang, on the western coast of North Korea. Photo: Imagesat International
April 7, 2012: Unha-3 satellite launcher positioned on the launch pad at Tongchang ri, west of Pyong Yang, on the western coast of North Korea. Photo: Imagesat International

In response to North Korea’s recent preparations to launch a satellite into orbit, the Japanese government deployed three Aegis-armed destroyers and Patriot missile batteries as a defensive measure to protect Japanese property and lives.

The North Korean regime claims that the satellite launch, scheduled for some time between 12 and 16 April, is a major display to highlight the nation’s strength and technological advances in celebration of the centennial observance of Kim Il Sung’s, birthday on 15 April.  Kim Il Sung is revered as the nation’s founder and the 100th anniversary of his birth is cause for nationwide celebrations and demonstrations of the North’s “coming of age” as a nation of international influence and importance.

North Korea’s state-controlled media has announced that this launch is designed to place an “Earth observation” satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-3, into a polar orbit to study weather patterns, agricultural conditions, and to locate promising natural resources.  This satellite is expected to relay “remote data in the UHF band and video in the X-band.”  The Unha-3 launch vehicle is aimed to fly a trajectory directly south of the launch site in the interest of protecting property and lives in neighboring nations, according to the North’s media announcements.

The North says that the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite is fitted with enhanced video equipment designed to transmit video images and related data to the General Satellite Control and Command Center.  The satellite is believed to weigh approximately 100 kilograms and will reportedly fly a solar-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 500 kilometers.  The satellite is reported to have an expected operational lifespan of two years.

The North Korean rocket is expected to pass over or near the Sakishima Islands forming the southernmost portion of Okinawa Prefecture.  The North’s state-sponsored media has reported that the rocket’s first stage is expected to come down in the waters somewhat west of South Korea.  The second stage is expected to overfly open airspace near the Japanese Ishigaki and Sakishima islands eventually falling into open waters to the east of Luzon Island in the Philippines.

The three deployed Japanese destroyers are equipped with RIM-161 Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors, a short- to intermediate range missile that is part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile System.  This missile was used successfully in 2008 by the US Navy to shoot down a crippled American satellite at an altitude of 133 nautical miles (247 kilometers) above the Pacific Ocean.  One shot, one missile, one kill.

Japan's missile defense assets deployed to Intercept the North Korean missile on its ascent trajectory. Illustration: Daily Yomiuri
Japan has also deployed Patriot PAC-3 missile batteries to the islands of Ishigaki and Miyako and the principal island of Okinawa as a second line of defense.  The government also deployed Patriot batteries in the vicinity of the Ministry of Defense’s Tokyo headquarters.Should the order be issued to shoot down the North Korean rocket, the SM-3 shipboard interceptors, as the first line of defense, will aim to bring down the rocket while it is above the Earth’s atmosphere.  Should the SM-3 shipboard missiles miss the target, the PAC-3 missile batteries will attempt to shoot down the rocket, or any remnants of the rocket, as it reenters the atmosphere.

Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has also been ordered to ready F-15s to provide air cover for the Aegis destroyers.

South Korea has also issued a public warning that the South stands ready to destroy the North Korean rocket should it violate South Korean airspace.  South Korean sources have confirmed that two destroyers have been deployed to the West Sea to track the rocket’s trajectory.  ROKS Sejong the Great (DDG-991), a 7,600-ton Aegis-armed destroyer, is one of the ships deployed.

A spokesperson for the South’s Ministry of National Defense  confirmed that the Ministry is prepared to track the rocket and shoot it down if it appears to represent a threat to life or property.  The deployed destroyers will be ordered to fire their Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) missiles to bring the rocket down if it fails to follow the planned trajectory or fails to function properly.

South Korea also announced that Patriot PAC-2 missile batteries have been deployed as a second line of defense, the PAC-2s were acquired secondhand from Germany in 2007 and have been integrated with an Israeli Super Green Pine early warning radar system.

The North’s new Sohae launch site at Tongchang-ri on the northwestern seacoast presents a new challenge to the South’s missile defense array as the new site can be placed into operable condition much more quickly than the older launch site.  Also, the angle of trajectory from this new site increases the level of difficulty for seaborne missile systems to acquire, target, and hit a rocket launched from this location.

Despite the US Navy’s 2008 success in shooting down a rogue US rocket, some doubt exists regarding the ability of Japanese and South Korean forces to bring down the North’s Unha-3 launch vehicle.  Very little is known about the Unha-3, but it is believed to be an advanced version of the Unha-2 with a length of approximately 35 meters and a projected range estimated to be anywhere between 5,000 and 9,000 kilometers.  A scarcity of verifiable data makes it impossible to do any more than estimate the rocket’s capabilities on the basis of data gleaned from previous rocket launches.

Newly released satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has moved the first stage of the Unha-3 rocket to the Sohae launch site.  Although not visible in the satellite photos, the Associated Press is reporting that an analysis provided by the US/Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies indicates that the first stage of the Unha-3 may already be in place within a gantry on the launch platform.  The support gantry on the platform is a closed structure and is likely obscuring a clear view of the rocket.

Analysts with the Institute also believe that fueling activities have been completed.  Satellite images seem to indicate that the empty fuel and oxidizer tanks have been removed and the area around the launch pad has been cleared of loose objects and mobile equipment.  The road leading to the launch site is now blocked by a newly erected barricade and it appears that a heightened level of security has been instituted.

With evidence that the Unha-3 rocket is nearing completion for launch, the US Department of Defense activated the nation’s global missile shield.  This action accelerates electronic monitoring, authorizes the deployment of Aegis-equipped interceptor ships, and raises the level of radar tracking activities in the Pacific region.  Three US interceptor ships deployed near Japan and the Philippines have been alerted as well as land-based missile batteries in the zone of greatest perceived danger.  These assets, according to unnamed sources, will be given the order to bring down the North Korean rocket should it deviate from its announced path of trajectory or should sensors indicate the rocket represents a danger to life or property.