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The Navy ship that bills itself as able to destroy ballistic missiles in the “exoatmospheric battle space” made a big splash during a visit to the Japanese port town that bills itself as the “front door to Russia, China and North and South Korea.”

When it pulled in to Niigata on the west coast of Japan on Oct. 11, the USS Lake Erie, a critical piece in the emerging U.S. missile-defense system, was met at the pier by hundreds of Japanese, some happy to see it, others, not so much, according to local newspapers.

The ship commander, Capt. Joseph Horn Jr., gave a press conference where, according to one Japanese publication, the following exchange occurred with the locals:

“Why did you come here, then? Is this to monitor North Korean threats?”

“This is a routine visit,” Horn replied. “We are here to nurture the friendship with the local people.”

“Do you have SM-3s on board? Are they going to be loaded on the ships that deploy to the Sea of Japan?”

“I cannot answer questions that pertain to operational matters.”

The ship was in port for three days, and it was the first visit by an Aegis-equipped U.S. ship. According to the Kyodo News, the port call was widely seen as part of the Navy’s missile defense efforts against perceived North Korean ballistic missile threats.

The Lake Erie, in its first deployment away from its Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, homeport in nearly five years, was temporarily assigned to 7th Fleet several weeks ago. The guided-missile cruiser is famed for test-firing missiles at purported enemy ballistic missiles to destroy them in flight.

The 7th Fleet also is contributing three warships in rotating patrols in the Sea of Japan that are supposed to be able to detect any ballistic missile firings and relay the information to systems capable of shooting it down, including, in theory, the Erie and land- based systems in California and Alaska that are to be operational by the end of the year. The other Aegis-equipped warships modified for the patrols are the USS Fitzgerald, which recently joined the 7th Fleet from San Diego, and the USS John McCain.

The first ship to take the patrol was the USS Curtis Wilbur, which left Yokosuka the last week of September.

Lt. Cmdr. Marc Boyd, a 7th Fleet spokesman, said the Erie would not be spending all its time under 7th Fleet control on missile defense.

“It will participate in a number of exercises,” he said. “It’s here to support operations and exercises, which encompasses much more than missile defense.”

The ship most recently was in the Philippines, where it went to Tacloban on Oct. 17 for an observation of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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