This is not the first time that the North has chosen to take a belligerent stance. The North Koreans are fond of shooting ballistic missiles over Japan, which wins them no friends in Tokyo. They also periodically fire artillery at South Korea, or torpedo their neighbor’s warships. These actions are usually taken as retribution against perceived slights by their southern cousins. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that North Korea wants to be taken seriously and is willing to use force to achieve its aim.
North Korea is a time bomb. It is an anachronism, and a contradiction: a hereditary communist dictatorship, the closest thing to an Orwellian state on earth. It is a military with a government: 2 million strong ruling over 25 million peasants perpetually on the verge of starvation. Far from being the target of South Korean, much less American, unification plans, it is a constant migraine that both allies would wish on the far side of the world, and not just across the Imjin River.
And they have both nukes and launchers.
North Korea is not the only dodgy state developing long range missiles. Iran has a well-developed and sophisticated program that has gone through multiple generations of tactical and ballistic missile designs. The Iranian military has tested and fielded a battlefield rocket capable of reaching as far as Israel, Turkey and Ukraine. The next generation of intermediate range missile will bring most of Continental Europe within range.
And they are building nukes, however many denials they might issue.
In fact, designing a workable rocket is not very difficult. The technology has been tried and tested since the 1940’s. More difficult is turning that rocket from a Roman candle into something that might actually strike a target smaller than a province. Miniaturization of payload, guidance systems, command and control – all of these things require time and money to develop, test and deploy, but are well within the capabilities and budgets of far less sophisticated states than Iran.
India and Pakistan are both nuclear armed states, and both have ballistic missiles. Neither are a particular concern to the US since their missiles are pointed at each other (and the Indians might have a few pointed discreetly towards China). Furthermore, we are allies of Pakistan, despite our strained relations, and on excellent terms with India. They nevertheless demonstrate the ease with which determined nations can acquire these weapons.
China has long fielded both ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. The Chinese do not have the vast arsenal built by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but that is scant comfort to Hawaii and California. Of greater concern to the US is the ongoing development of anti-ship guided ballistic missiles. The Chinese are intent on building a missile deterrent force capable of neutralizing the US Navy in the event of a conflict with an independence-minded Taiwan. Neutralize in this case means sinking the American aircraft carriers in the Eastern Pacific and killing tens of thousands of sailors.
The threat from these missiles extends far beyond a potential conflict over Taiwan. They could be used to interdict US supply lines in a second Korean conflict, should China intervene in favor of their clients as they did in the last war. These missiles are a potent threat over the heads of our Japanese and Philippine allies, both of whose naval bases would be entirely within range of Chinese batteries. As Chinese power economic and military power grows, what is to deter a more assertive, even belligerent, stance regarding the Spratly and Paracel Islands and other disputed claims?
Only the US Navy, but little good it will be if it cannot steam past Guam for fear of being sunk.
The world has become more, not less, dangerous since the end of the Cold War. The bipolar system, for all of its inherent dangers, nevertheless served to dampen regional conflicts and ambitions. Today’s “apolar” world faces us with a growing number of regional powers, all of them building up their military capabilities and focusing increasingly on exploiting US weaknesses asymmetrically. China is not going to out-build us in aircraft carriers and battle fleets any time soon, but if they can build enough missiles to sink our ships, they hardly need to. Iran has also invested in sophisticated anti-air and anti-ship defenses, not in the hope of defeating the United States, but in order to raise the cost of intervention sufficiently high so as to deter us from taking action. So far, they have been very successful.
It seems clear that the United States faces a clear challenge. When unfriendly nations are able to threaten and cajole our allies, place our military in check and shape our geopolitical strategies in ways that are disadvantageous to us, it demands a decisive reaction. The logical course would be to counter the threat – and the US has the tools to do so.
That US has been developing, and since 2008, deploying an anti-ballistic missile defense system called THAADS (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System). THAADS has been in development since 1992, when Lockheed Martin won a competition to design, test and produce the missile interceptor.
Building a ballistic missile is child’s play compared to building a ballistic missile interceptor. Back in the 1950’s, the Soviets deployed 100 missile interceptors around Moscow. These were nothing more than nuclear tipped ballistic missiles themselves, the theory being that you could shoot these up into the upper atmosphere, detonate them, and fry the inbound missiles – just like the video game Missile Command. This has obvious implications and drawbacks for anything less than World War III.
The original Patriot PAC-2 anti-aircraft missile of First Gulf War fame used a proximity fuse to detonate a warhead near the target and the concussion and shrapnel usually do the rest – but not always. THAADS is designed to be a kinetic kill vehicle: the interceptor destroys its target by slamming into it. That does the job every time, but is comparable to shooting a bullet out of the air with another bullet. Consequently, THAADS has been plagued by difficulties.
The first six operational tests against targets between 1995 and 1999 were failures, for a variety of reasons. It was bad enough that Congress cut program funding, which happens to a defense program as often as the parting of the Red Sea. The last two tests in 1999 were successful, but the future of the program remained in doubt.
The program did continue, however. In 2000, Lockheed won the Army contract to turn the missile interceptor design in to a mobile unit, capable of being deployed and maneuvered on a battlefield. Testing resumed of the complete system (missile, launcher, radar and fire control system) in 2006. This time, THAADS conducted seven consecutive successful intercepts of targets both inside and outside the atmosphere. The last test, on 5 October 2011, was the successful destruction of two targets by two interceptors inside the earth’s atmosphere, conforming to the characteristics of inbound SCUDs or Shahab ballistic missiles.
The first deployment of 24 missile launchers has been fielded by the US Missile Defense Agency and are based in Fort Bliss, Texas.
The Navy has a similar program, known as the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. The Aegis Combat System has been successfully deployed on the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser since the 1980’s. It is an advanced, integrated system that combines the radar, missiles and guns, and fire control to track and destroy enemy planes and missiles. The Ticonderogas were designed to the first line of defense for carrier battle groups against inbound Soviet aircraft and anti-ship missiles. However, defeating aircraft and air- or sea-launched missiles is a different proposition to defending against a ballistic missile, and the Navy has been developing the new technologies necessary to counter this threat.
Today, the Navy has successfully developed and test a radar/missile/fire control combination on the Aegis platform. The 22 active Ticonderoga-class cruisers have all be upgraded to this standard, as well as 21 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Additionally, the system is being installed in allied navies as well – most significantly, the Japanese and Australian navies.
A key characteristic of any defense it to provide layers of it. A ballistic missile trajectory can be divided into three phases: the boost phase, mid-flight and separation, and terminal phase. The boost phase is when the target is most vulnerable – it is still large, slow and has not had a chance to deploy decoys. It is also furthest away from the probable location of interceptors. During mid-flight, the target remains vulnerable, though less than in the boost phase, until separation. The terminal phase is the most difficult – incoming targets are small, moving fast and may have split into various separate objects, some of which might be decoys. You don’t know, so you are forced to engage them all.
A layered anti-ballistic missile defense system will have capabilities to engage targets during all three phases. The THAADS system was built to engage targets in the terminal stage of flight. Aegis can engage during all three stages, and has the great advantage of being on a mobile platform, making it more probable to be in a position to successfully destroy enemy missiles during their most vulnerable boost phase. The two systems complement each other and should not be considered as substitutes.
In the midst of these positive developments, President Obama has decided to use the very credible US missile defense programs as a bargaining chip for a very dubious “reset” of US-Russian relations. The greatest irritant to the Russians was the planned – now cancelled – deployment of THAADS interceptors along with the necessary radar and crews to Poland and Romania. President Obama agreed to cancel this deployment in return for a Russian commitment to enter a new round of SALT talks, which they did and which were ultimately successful.
While Common Sense applauds the President for his commitment to nuclear disarmament and his successful negotiations with Russia, the way it was achieved was highly unsatisfactory.
You never leave an ally in a lurch.
Poland and Romania where left “holding the bag” while the US and Russians went off to be friends. Not only have the Russians not been very good friends, they are not going to forget how eager Poland was to base missile interceptors on its territory. How likely are they to acquiesce the next time we go to them asking for favors?
Will Japan or South Korea believe US promises to defend them against China when they see key NATO allies like Poland callously discarded upon the vagaries of US policies? And these are our closest allies. What about friendly states with which we’d like to deepen our economic and military relationships, like Indonesia or the Philippines? They are close enough to China to see that the Panda has teeth and claws, but too far from the US to receive more than promises. We need to make sure that our promises are backed by steel.
President Reagan, when he authorized the development of the so-called “Star Wars” program, argued that the American people should not be held hostage to the whims of a madman. At the time, the President was criticized – and rightly so – for being overly ambitious. No anti-ballistic missile shield could conceivably protect the United States from the tens of thousands of Soviet warheads and missiles. This is still true. All the more reason for Russia to tone down the hysterics regarding a few interceptors in Eastern Europe.
The purpose of an ABM shield isn’t to stop a massive Russian strike. That’s what we have our own nuclear arsenal for. It should be about convincing unscrupulous states like Iran and North Korea that all of that money they are pouring into ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads will be useless. We will have the interceptors in place to shoot them down.
President Obama should continue funding anti-ballistic missile research and the deployment of the interceptors we now have available. These systems should be shared with our closest allies and those most threatened by rogue states: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia. This will demonstrate our commitment to their safety far more than a few thousand Marines in Darwin. It will enable these allies to resist the pressure to accommodate, rather than resist, the growing demands and pressure placed on them by certain of their neighbors. And it will also show our potential adversaries that we are serious about responding to their threats.