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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The United States and Japan are engaged in ongoing discussions about the need for additional mainland ballistic-missile defense systems to counter an increasing threat posed by North Korea, the Pacific Air Forces commander said Thursday.

Gen. Paul V. Hester, on a tour of Pacific bases, said U.S. Forces Japan is working closely with the Japanese government on a plan to strike a balance between collective defense and operability. He also discussed the adequacy of air training ranges in Japan and South Korea.

“Over the history of missile defense in the United States, we’ve been developing a variety of schematics,” Hester said. “We have defensive weapons we can place in our own country and others. Right now, Japan is looking at this and deciding how much they want to invest in it.”

The key to effective missile defense is making determinations about hardware and equipment, he added. Early detection also is vital.

“Can you detect a launch and be able to pass that information along to the proper people in a timely manner? That’s the most difficult piece,” he said. “We’re all in the infancy stages of developing (Patriot Advanced Capability-3) missiles that can shoot down scuds and other missiles. But what exactly do we need? … We have to look at what we need for not only our land bases but also ships at sea.”

Patriot missiles already are being deployed to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. Personnel began arriving in August and the 24 PAC-3 missiles being relocated from Fort Bliss, Texas, are being put in place now, USFJ officials said.

In June, the forward-based X-Band radar, a surveillance system designed to detect and track ballistic missiles, was transported to the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Shakiri base near Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. It’s the first of its kind employed and provides extensive coverage of the sea between Japan and the Korean peninsula, according to U.S. military officials.

Hester said no offensive missiles would be placed in Japan or Okinawa.

“Everything we do is in support of an alliance that is a defensive alliance,” he said. “It’s all in support of defensive measures. If deployed, the PAC-3 defensive missiles would be to protect Japanese cities on the Kanto Plain and the base assets that we have.”

Hester also said the Air Force has had a “very difficult time” conducting air-to- ground training in South Korea, where the government closed a bombing range. Unable to practice strafing and bombing runs with live fire there, aircrews were sent to Thailand and other locations to train “so they could be ready to ‘fight tonight,’” he added.

South Korea has promised to build a new range, Hester said, and he expects to receive a progress report when he is there this weekend.

Hester praised Kadena’s capacity for air training and a Misawa air-to-ground training range has been updated with fresh targets, he added.

As Pacific-based airmen fight the war on terror, Hester said the Air Force must ensure the quality of base programs that assist families left behind.

“That frees up airmen to do their jobs and our nation’s business,” he added.

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