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Sci-Tech

World awaits ballistic-missile takedown over Asia

Japan is on alert to take out a North Korean rocket (which it says is to put a satellite into orbit) with its "Son of Star Wars" SM-3 ballistic missile defense system.

Raytheon

Does a "Star Wars" missile defense work? We may soon find out, if the rocket launch planned by North Korea starts to veer anywhere near Japan, instead of disappearing harmlessly into the stratosphere, as is hoped.

Japan says it will station the destroyers Kongo and Chokai in the Sea of Japan off North Korea. Both vessels will be armed with SM-3 ballistic-missile defense systems, in case the rocket malfunctions or wanders close to any of its islands, according to the Japanese Kyodo news agency.

"If it is capable of reaching Japan, then it goes without saying that we will react," Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada announced. "We have been making preparations, including ballistic-missile defense, for any incident which could affect Japan. If it will affect Japan, then it will be our target."

Shooting down an intercontinental ballistic missile outside the Earth's atmosphere, under live conditions, would be another major test for both the Raytheon SM-3, aka "Son of Star Wars," and Japanese resolve (PDF).

The SM-3 has already had success hitting a target outside the Earth's atmosphere. Just over a year ago, the U.S. Navy fired an SM-3 at a failed spy satellite (photos) and blew it out of the heavens (video).

If let loose, this would be the first time anything of "Star Wars" lineage--the Reagan-era missile defense notion--has been fired in anger, not under test conditions. But there's a lot more at stake than the future of a gold-plated $8.9 billion missile defense system. There's face--and the potential loss thereof.

If Japan takes a shot and misses, it suffers "international humiliation" and ridicule for going all-in with the SM-3. On the other hand, if it scores a bull's-eye, not only North Korea, but also China, will be afraid--very afraid, according to analysts and pundits awaiting the show of high-seas brinkmanship.

Japan and the United States have cooperated closely on the SM-3 program, and Japan was the first nation to procure the missile.

North Korea has said the purpose of the rocket launch is put a satellite into orbit; others believe it is to demonstrate an intercontinental nuclear ability to reach out and touch Alaska.