Japan's guided-missile destroyer JDS Atago (DDG 177). Picture: US Navy

Japan has launched the first of a new generation of guided missile destroyers from a shipyard in Yokohama, sparking accusations from China’s Global Times that it is trying to destabilize the region.

The US$1.5 billion vessel is the seventh Aegis destroyer acquired by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, but the first to be fitted with the advanced Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) system. With a displacement of 8,200 tons and a length of 170 meters, it is scheduled to enter service by 2020.

Supplied by the US, the CEC system enables real-time sharing of intelligence on battlefield situations and hostile targets between ships in allied navies, while information and parameters are synced across all platforms linked to a sensory network. Sharing of radar and fire-controlling data will also be possible with the US Navy.

Warships equipped with this system can intercept incoming ballistic missiles in steep, lofted trajectories, and track dozens of targets simultaneously while firing clusters of defensive missiles, according to Japan Times. One such missile is the powerful SM-3 Block IIA.

Japan will have eight Aegis destroyers with a ballistic missile defense capability by 2021. At their core will be a computer-based command-and-decision element capable of mounting simultaneous operations against a range of of threats.

Tokyo remains skeptical about Kim Jong-un’s pledge in his talks with Donald Trump last month to dismantle North Korean nuclear and missile launch sites. The Self-Defense Force is also building two new Maya-class Aegis destroyers and will set up onshore ballistic missile defense systems in Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures.

Japan badly needs to beef up its deterrence capability, as it relies on warships to keep vessels from the People’s Liberation Army away from the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The Japanese Navy operates four Kongō-class destroyers that it launched in 1993. Two improved vessels known as the Atago class were purchased in 2000 and the first ship of the current class, Atago (DDG 177), was commissioned in 2007.

The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System program is also intended to enable Japanese ships to counter short to medium-range missiles of the type employed by potential rogue states like North Korea and even China. The US and Japan are the only countries that are preparing to  actively deploy the Aegis BMD systems.

Analysts say Japan’s ability to provide ship-based anti-aircraft and anti-missile warfare protection is limited by its lack of aircraft carriers. Destroyers and frigates equipped with Aegis combat systems,  and specifically the CEC, will help fill the defensive gap in territorial waters.

These capabilities are force multipliers, allowing Japan’s sizable destroyer and frigate force to be deployed far from home waters, even though some say Japan is risking its “passive” defense policy and its pacifist constitution.

In Beijing, Global Times accused Japan of destabilizing the region. The state-run news site quoted Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the PLA’s Naval Military Studies Research Institute, as saying that the CEC system would strengthen Japan’s intelligence data sharing with the US. From the US perspective, this meant it could also better control Japan, Zhang said.

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