In a recent report over at 38 North, Jeffrey Lewis and John Schilling discuss various North Korean missile “mock-ups” displayed over the last year. While the authors note that “not all of these solutions are elegant,” they quickly add “these options are good enough to produce missiles with theoretical ranges from 5,500 kilometers to over 11,000 kilometers. The latter would allow virtually the entire United States of America to be reached from North Korean launch sites, making good on the threat implied by the Map of Death. Almost all of the configurations examined would be able to deliver a light first-generation nuclear warhead at least as far as Seattle.”
Leaving aside for the moment if or how North Korea could actually in the near future hit the United States or even nations in Northeast Asia with a nuclear weapon, such a discussion makes clear Washington and its allies will soon be faced with a challenge that myself and many others have discussed – the threat of not only nuclear tipped missiles but slowly advancing types and ever increasing amounts of ballistic and conventionally armed cruise missiles.
In many respects, the challenge is already here. Various nations around the globe, many of which have national interests counter to that of the United States and its allies, are developing missiles that can go further, with larger and deadlier payloads, and are becoming increasingly accurate over time.
Such a threat should be no shock to anyone who has followed even the most basic discussion of military technology or opened a history book. With advances in rocket technology starting roughly in the 1930s leading to the terror weapons of Nazi Germany to today’s “carrier-killers” and cruise missiles, the inevitable diffusion of military technology has led to smaller and less technologically advanced nations or even non-state actors to either buy such weapons or increasingly build advanced missiles domestically.
And all we need to do is look back to recent conflicts to understand the impact they can have on the battlefield. The 1982 Falklands conflict saw Argentine forces use a French-made Exocet missile to critically wound the HMS Sheffield. Tomahawks during the 1991 Gulf War ushered in what many consider the revolution of military affairs (RMA). In 2006, a missile fired by Hezbollah on an Israeli frigate clearly demonstrated the potency of anti-ship weapons. North Korea’s multiple attempts to test missile technology while ramping up tensions in the region clearly show the worries of today are slowly becoming the challenges of the near-future.
Indeed, there are several countries who are building robust missile capabilities that in the years to come could be incorporated into robust A2/AD strategies in an effort to deny American or other forces access to the global commons. China’s A2/AD strategy is clearly missile-centric with Chinese authors advocating for saturation strikes that could at least in theory overwhelm Aegis and allied missile defense platforms. Iran is also building a robust A2/AD missile capability that is improving over time.
Turning back to much more frightening challenges, the danger of nuclear weapons being delivered by missiles against the U.S. and its allies especially in the wider Indo-Pacific region is certainly cause for concern, but not panic. For example, North Korea and Iran still have a long way to go even if they were to have the technical means to build a missile with the range needed to target the United States. First, they would need to be able to take a nuclear device (and in Iran’s case, develop nuclear weapons) and miniaturize it – not an easy task by any means. Then, the warhead must survive re-entry, which surmises the need for advanced heat shielding technology. Despite the immense explosive power of a nuclear warhead, guidance systems would also need to be reasonably well developed to come close enough to the target to eliminate it. One would also require some way to overcome growing U.S. and allied missile defense capabilities in the region and back in the American homeland. And you can’t just have one missile or two; besides using enough warheads to ensure some get past missile defense systems, countries want a decent size arsenal to ensure they have a credible, survivable deterrent.
Thankfully for America and its allies, mastering the complex technologies of nuclear warheads and ICBMs has been something only a small amount of nations have mastered. Yet, that does not mean the threat is not there or slowly brewing. And taking into account the dangers posed by conventional missiles alone, cruise and ballistic weapons soon will not be just the privy of highly-advanced industrial economies but will pose greater challenges as time goes on. While there are a whole host of ways to tackle such missile challenges and “break the kill chain” that go beyond missile defense, it remains to be seen whether most U.S. or allied defense experts understand the scope of the challenge, or if they will have the resources to meet the challenge in the first place.