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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The 7th Fleet begins a significant new mission in the next few weeks: patrolling the Sea of Japan to provide early warning of ballistic missiles fired from North Korea at the United States.

The ships tasked with the initial patrols — the first of their kind ever undertaken by the United States — are the USS Curtis Wilbur, the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald, according to a publication of the Missile Defense Agency, part of the Defense Department.

All three are 7th Fleet destroyers equipped with an Aegis weapons system that has been modified to detect and track medium- and long-range missiles. The ships would provide earlier warning of a missile launch and transmit the information to other systems, including land-based systems in Alaska and California designed to intercept the missiles and scheduled to be up and working by year’s end.

Adm. Vern Clark, the Navy’s chief of naval operations, who was at Yokosuka on Thursday as part of a several-day visit to Japan, declined to say which ship would be the first on what he agreed would be a “historic” mission. Clark said the missile-tracking mission would be “providing for the defense of our country and our friends.”

North Korea possesses ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. West Coast, as well as Hawaii and Alaska, former CIA Director George Tenet testified at a Senate committee hearing in February 2003. In 1998 the isolated, Stalinist nation test-fired a medium-range Taepodong 1 ballistic missile that arced over northern Honshu before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in March told reporters that the deployment would enhance regional security. “I think it will serve as a deterrent,” he said in published reports.

Japan has worked cooperatively with the United States on missile defense for several years and has its own Aegis destroyers.

Seventh Fleet spokesmen declined to comment on the mission, which will add a new responsibility to the already busy fleet, or say which ship might be the first to do the watch.

But Lt. Cmdr. Marc Boyd, a 7th Fleet spokesman, did say, “We remain ready to do any mission as tasked.”

Secretary of the Navy Gordon England announced in a March speech that a destroyer would be deployed to the Sea of Japan in September for missile tracking “and on a virtually continuous basis thereafter.”

The new mission is in keeping with the Bush administration’s plan to begin fielding initial missile defense capabilities by the end of 2004.

“The worldwide proliferation of ballistic missiles, combined with the growing development of deadly nuclear, chemical and biological agents requires the United States to field defensive missiles as soon as possible,” according to the Missile Defense Agency.

Four other destroyers from the Navy’s San Diego-based 3rd Fleet also are being readied for the job: the USS Paul Hamilton, USS Stethem, USS Russell and USS John Paul Jones, according to Navy sources. The 3rd and 7th fleets comprise the Pacific Fleet.

By 2006, according to the Missile Defense Agency, 15 destroyers and three cruisers will be equipped for the long-range surveillance and tracking missions. The Pentagon has not said where they’ll all be deployed.

The sea-based systems initially would be capable only of tracking missiles but because of closer proximity to North Korea or other so-designated “rogue states” would provide earlier tracking and a clearer picture for land-based interceptors, according to a Bloomberg News story in July that quoted Chris Myers, Lockheed Martin Corps’ vice president of sea-based missile defense programs. Lockheed Martin was given an $812 million contract to modify the Aegis ships, according to Bloomberg News.

By next year, the Missile Defense Agency says, Aegis cruisers will be able to shoot down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Last December, the cruiser USS Lake Erie successfully fired a Standard Missile-3 at a test target warhead and scored a direct hit, according to the agency.

The Lake Erie will be joining the 7th Fleet this fall, according to a ship press release.

The 7th Fleet’s new mission likely will mean longer at-sea periods for sailors on those ships, which will rotate in and out of the Sea of Japan to perform the watch. It also would mean that 7th Fleet would have to adjust its busy schedule, which includes more than 100 joint exercises with the navies of numerous nations in its area of operation.

Three years ago, North Korean officials said they would “extinguish the [U.S.] aggressors” if the United States deploys Aegis destroyers to the Sea of Japan. And on Tuesday, Pyongyang issued a press release claiming that the U.S. plan to deploy warships and patrol craft in the area was “a plot to blockade the coast of the DPRK, put the territorial waters of the DPRK under its control and go unchallenged in naval warfare.”

The 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treat between the U.S. and Russia had prohibited sea-based missile defense systems. But in 2002, the U.S. withdrew from the treaty.

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