The sea trials for the Haguro comes as Japan scrambles for a solution following its decision last week to suspend plans to deploy the Aegis Ashore system. Credit: Handout.

Its name is Maya, and experts say it could be the answer to dual threats from China and North Korea.

The last of Japan’s eight planned destroyers capable of intercepting ballistic missiles has started sea trials ahead of its commissioning, even as the country ponders its next move following its stunning reversal to suspend plans to introduce ground-based systems for that role, reported Mike Yeo of Defense News.

The destroyer Haguro left shipbuilder Japan Marine United Corporation’s shipyard at Isogo, near Yokohama and south of the Japanese capital Tokyo, this week for its first sea trials. The ship is set to be commissioned in 2021, if all goes well.

It is 170 meters long, displaces 8,200 tons and is fitted with SM-3 Block IIA and SM-6 interceptors to destroy ballistic missile targets. Its anti-ship missile capability is further enhanced by the RIM-66 SM-2 surface-to-air missiles and the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM), Naval Technology reported.

Secondary weapons include a 5-in/62-calibre gun, two high-performance 20mm cannons and two torpedo launch tubes.

Equipped with advanced command and control, as well as weapon control capabilities, the Aegis combat system can simultaneously engage air, land and surface targets.

According to Naval Technology, the Maya-class destroyer retains the base design configuration of the Atago-class, but comes with an enlarged hull, which will enable the integration of future guns and laser point-defence systems.

The Maya-class is also equipped with co-operative engagement capability (CEC), which allows the ship to receive targeting information from other military assets to improve missile defence capability.

The ship also incorporates a passive electronically scanned array radar and a Northrop Grumman AN/SPQ-9B multimode X-band pulse doppler radar to locate objects on the surface of the sea.

Haguro is the second ship of two Maya-class destroyers for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and it’s the country’s eighth destroyer to be equipped with the Aegis combat system for air and ballistic missile defense, Defense News reported.

Each guided-missile destroyer cost about US$1.6 billion to build. The Maya-class is named after Mount Maya in the Rokko mountain range in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture on Honshu island.

The sea trials for the Haguro comes as Japan scrambles for a solution following its decision last week to suspend plans to deploy the Aegis Ashore system.

Japan had planned to deploy two such systems, with one each at the north and south of its main island of Honshu, to provide early warning and interception coverage for the entire country against North Korean ballistic missiles, Defense News reported.

The former is unlikely to work in the long term, given that keeping three destroyers at sea at all times to provide around-the-clock ballistic missile defense for all of Japan is unsustainable, which was one of the key drivers behind the planned acquisition of Aegis Ashore.

National broadcaster NHK reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to hold a meeting with the country’s national security community this week to withdraw the Aegis Ashore deployment plan and set a new direction for the country’s security strategy, possibly seeking an alternative to Aegis Ashore.

NHK added that one of the alternatives would be for Japan to increase its standoff strike capability to enable it to conduct retaliatory strikes against launch facilities used to conduct missile strikes against Japan.

However, this is likely to face strident political opposition, including from the party with which Abe has formed a governing coalition, Defense News reported.

The reason given for last week’s suspension was ostensibly due to the costs and technical issues surrounding the development of the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor.

“This is a suspension without an alternative,” a senior government official told Japan Times, admitting that the decision has created a hole in the country’s air defenses.

The ministry has set up a special team to discuss the issue by bringing together specialists on Aegis Ashore and senior officials of the Defense Policy and Defense Buildup Planning bureaus.

Before adopting the Aegis Ashore plan, the government had considered whether to introduce the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) mobile ground-based missile defense system.

But the THAAD system would not solve the problem of falling rocket boosters, Japan Times reported.

In addition, Japan would need at least six units to cover the entire country, while Aegis Ashore required just two units. It would be difficult to secure that many locations for THAAD, which would likely draw opposition from local communities as Aegis Ashore did.