US arms exporters explode over missile threat

The world went more ballistic than usual over the weekend, with reports that North Korea had deployed new missiles able to hit most of Japan as well as South Korea, and that Iran had tested a missile able to hit Israel. But the people who have really been going ballistic are American defence companies, accelerating their efforts to sell anti-missile systems.

As the long-range missile threat grows, a number of countries are showing interest in Russian anti-missile defence systems, but the US would prefer them to buy its Patriot anti-missiles instead. The US, which wants to keep the Patriot production line running, has put heavy-handed pressure on South Korea and the United Arab Emirates not to buy Russian.

The Russians, the world's third biggest arms sellers, are desperate to sell high-tech weapons for hard currency to ease their chronic debt and oil-rich Middle Eastern states and tiger economies like South Korea are good customers. The US, the world's biggest arms seller (Britain is number two) does not like the idea for economic and strategic reasons.

Japan's Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda yesterday told a Parliamentary Committee there were unconfirmed reports that North Korea had deployed some of its Nodong-1 ballistic missiles on mobile launchers. On Friday Japanese television reported US spy satellites had spotted three Nodong- 1s in positions on North Korea's eastern coast. With a range of 1,000km (625 miles), the missiles can hit targets across most of Japan and all South Korea.

Two weeks ago Israel claimed that Iran tested an engine for a long-range missile with an estimated range of 1,500km (950 miles). The Russians deny they were involved, although Israeli officials say they believe Russian SS-4 missile parts have been transferred to Iran.

North Korea has denied it is developing a nuclear warhead for Nodong, but missiles of this type are not very accurate and, apart from harassment, only make sense with weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, biological or chemical - as warheads. For this reason, states which are potential targets take these missile developments very seriously.

The only nations currently able to build anti-ballistic missile systems are the US and Russia. The US has helped Israel develop a new anti-missile, called Arrow, but its deployment is still some years off. There is no large-scale US involvement in Arrow, but in the interim the US, and the US missile firm Raytheon, want to sell as many Patriots as possible.

South Korea has indicated that it was interested in buying the Russian S300V (Nato codename SA-12 Gladiator) system, but has come under heavy pressure from the US which has warned that US aircraft would be at risk from a Russian-built system which was incompatible with US identification systems. UAE, too, has come under criticism for expressing interest in the SA-12.

Missile experts yesterday said the US objection that the missiles might be a danger to their own planes was nonsense. "They've operated in Egyptian airspace for years", said Christopher Foss, editor of Jane's Land-Based Air Defence. Egypt is one of many Middle Eastern states which have operated Soviet or Russian systems for decades.