US missile-defense brigade in Japan could expand rapidly under threat, commander says

The 38th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, which reactivated at Sagami General Depot near Tokyo in October 2018, oversees air and missile defense units on mainland Japan, Okinawa and Guam, said the unit's commander, Col. Matthew Dalton.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 16, 2020

SAGAMI GENERAL DEPOT, Japan — The Army could send missile defense units from all over the world to Japan to safeguard allied forces in a contingency, according to the commander of an air defense unit near Tokyo.

The 38th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, which reactivated at Sagami General Depot in Kanagawa prefecture in October 2018, oversees air and missile defense units on mainland Japan, Okinawa and Guam, said Col. Matthew Dalton, 46, of Portland, Conn.

“There are two main missions,” he said in an interview Monday at his headquarters. “The defense of Japan and homeland defense.”

The threat of Chinese and North Korean missiles is an ever-present concern for U.S. commanders in the Far East. As recently as 2017 the North Koreans fired a ballistic missile over northern Japan and tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts believed to be capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

The same year, Google Earth images revealed that China, which has a vast arsenal of missiles, was firing them at targets configured to look like U.S. bases in Japan.

“I get apprehensive that we are not fully conscious as a nation of the threats that we face,” Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters Monday at the Pentagon. “China now has the capability … to directly threaten our homeland from a ballistic missile submarine. That’s a pretty watershed moment.”

Missiles are becoming more of a threat globally, Dalton said.

“It’s cost effective for the threat to make a bunch of ballistic missiles and it is expensive for us to shoot them down,” he said.

Dalton’s brigade oversees Patriot missile defense units at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, battery at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

However, the brigade could expand to command and control as many as six battalions, each with several missile defense batteries, if necessary.

“Because we have the headquarters here, we have the ability to quickly expand,” he said. “We can receive units from any part of the world and integrate them here on Honshu or anywhere in Japan.”

U.S. air defense forces in Japan work closely with their Japanese counterparts.

Japan has two tiers of missile defense: Aegis destroyers capable of tracking and bringing down incoming missiles, and an undisclosed number of Patriot launchers operated throughout the country by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.

A plan to procure the Aegis Ashore missile defense system was scuttled in June by the Japanese government due to concerns about where rocket boosters might fall, Defense Minister Taro Kono said at the time.

The U.S. Army’s air defense artillerymen often work at Japan’s Air Defense Command on Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, Dalton added.

“Integration is always the goal,” he said. “Being able to get a common air picture between the different joint and bilateral services. Integrating electronically is fairly easy for us because we have been doing it for years.”

Some of the bases where air defense artillerymen serve in Japan are remote and spartan.

“Think Afghan [forward operating bases),” Dalton said of radar sites at Kyogamisaki, near Kyoto, and Shariki, south of Misawa.

Making missile defense work in Japan means regular exercises with local forces, Dalton said.

“We have to constantly work together and rehearse and practice,” he said, adding that the most effective training involves multiple service branches from the U.S. and Japanese militaries.

Twitter: @SethRobson1