By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) - The U.S. and South Korean militaries want to more closely integrate their systems for tracking North Korean missile launches, an effort that may soon see more cooperation with Japan as well, U.S. Space Force officials said on Wednesday.
Led by a small contingent of U.S. Space Force personnel - the branch's first official component set up overseas - the allies see closer space integration as key to better tracking North Korean threats and responding to a conflict.
U.S. President Joe Biden agreed with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at an Aug. 18 summit that by the end of this year the three countries would share North Korea missile warning data in real time.
The exact details of that trilateral cooperation are being worked out at higher levels, Space Force officials told reporters at a briefing at Osan Air Base, south of Seoul.
"My understanding is there are future bilateral agreements and possibly trilateral agreements that are in the works, especially on the missile warning piece... with sharing that data," said Major Matt Taylor, deputy commander of U.S. Space Forces - Korea.
There are gatherings planned for personnel to collaborate and share processes and procedures, he said.
"None of those details and have been refined or decided at this point but those discussions are being had," Taylor added.
So far the Space Force component in South Korea, which began operating in December, has focused on closer integration with the South Koreans and ensuring that U.S. troops there have more access to space-based assets, the officials said.
Missile tracking data, including information from the U.S. Space-based Infrared System (SBIRS), which can detect missile launches, is already being automatically shared with U.S. allies through early warning systems, said Master Sergeant Shawn Stafford.
South Korea and Japan rely mostly on land and sea-based radars to track launches, but South Korean Air Force Space Operation Squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Kim Jong Ha said that adding space-based capabilities would provide a "3D" view of the threats.
Given South Korea's push to develop more anti-ballistic missile systems, gaining data from U.S. and possibly Japanese systems would help it detect targets, said Tal Inbar, a missile and space expert with Israel's Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.
"The whole region could gain a lot from cooperation and collaboration and interoperability of the systems," he told a briefing in Seoul.
(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)