(Reuters) - The USS Shiloh, the first missile defense-capable ship to be deployed in Japan, arrived in the port of Yokosuka on Tuesday, eight weeks after North Korea unnerved the region with a barrage of missile tests.
White-clad sailors lined the decks of the 10,000-tonne cruiser as it pulled slowly into the U.S. naval base 45 km (30 miles) southwest of Tokyo, to be greeted with a Japanese-style taiko drum performance by U.S. seamen, reports Trend.
The deployment of the Shiloh, boasting Standard Missile-3 interceptors for shooting down medium-range ballistic missiles, is a symbolic first step in a joint U.S.-Japanese program to try to shield Japan and the region from missile attack.
"The United States remains committed to the defense of Japan and peace and stability in the western Pacific," visiting U.S. Navy Secretary Donald Winter said in a speech at the dockside welcome ceremony.
The two allies stressed the significance of the ship's arrival as an example of the United States' strong security alliance with Japan, although the chances of preventing a missile attack on the country with a single vessel are slim.
North Korea condemned U.S. missile defense plans.
"The scheme of the U.S. war-thirsty quarters to deploy dense MD (missile defense) networks in the U.S. mainland, Japan and the Pacific reveals their wild ambition to rule the world by strength," Pyongyang's KCNA news agency reported the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper as saying in a commentary on Tuesday.
"No country in the world threatens the U.S. with missiles," it added.
In July, Pyongyang test-fired a series of ballistic missiles, an incident that drew attention to Japan's lack of defense systems eight years after Tokyo was spooked by a previous North Korean ballistic missile test in 1998.
Many analysts, however, have cast doubt on whether missile defense systems can reliably shoot down incoming missiles, and they criticize the program for drawing funds away from other areas of defense spending.
Missile defense accounts for 140 billion yen ($1.2 billion) of Japan's 4.81 trillion yen ($41 billion) defense budget this year.
The defense agency plans to seek a record 219 billion yen for missile defense in the fiscal year from next April 1, Kyodo news agency reported, although such requests are usually whittled down in the budget process.
As a second line of defense, the U.S. military will begin to install Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors at its Kadena Air Base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa in September and plans to make them partly operational by the end of the year.
The ship-to-air SM-3 interceptors are designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in mid-flight, when they fly outside the earth's atmosphere, while ground-based PAC-3 interceptors target missiles in their terminal phase, shortly before they reach their targets.
Japan, whose pacifist constitution restricts the activities of its armed forces, relies on the United States for much of its defense capability, playing host to about 50,000 military personnel.
But Tokyo plans to install its own missile defense hardware, including fitting its four Aegis radar system-equipped warships with SM-3s.
"This is just a beginning," Japanese Foreign Ministry official Chikao Kawai said at the Yokosuka ceremony. "We need more capability. We need to speed up the deployment of additional equipment."
Kyodo said the United States had offered to provide Japan with up to 80 more Patriot missiles, as Japan seeks to speed up its own deployment of ground-based interceptor missiles.