Plugging U.S. Missile Defense Gaps

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Plugging U.S. Missile Defense Gaps

A series of tactical errors mean North Korea is taking American threats increasingly less seriously. The U.S. has military technical and operational options for changing this quickly.

It would be a mistake to assume that we dodged a bullet with the fiery end to North Korea’s Unha-3 missile launch at the Dongchang-ri facility one minute into its fight. In fact, this was a test flight, and while missile engineers always hope for fully successful flights, they also understand that there’s plenty to be learned from failures as well. The reality is that however this launch ended, it portends an exponential advance in North Korea’s military arsenal. While compared to modern solid-fueled rockets the liquid-fueled Unha-3 may be operationally impractical as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, it provides a perfect test of the staging required for a long-range missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead. North Korea’s missile provocation transcends mere reputational costs to the United States and its allies – it poses real military threats that must be addressed through defensive military means.

A brief précis about the North’s existing missile programs helps to understand why a putative satellite launch poses such danger. North Korea’s Taepodong 1 is a two-stage ballistic missile with a maximum range of about 2,000 kilometers for a 1,000 kilogram payload. Its first stage appears similar to the No Dong rocket, and its second stage is probably similar to the Hwasong-6 rocket (both derived from the Soviet “Scud” family of missiles). 

With a 1,000 kilogram payload, the Taepodong 1 can notionally reach Japan and Taiwan. The Taepodong 2 is a two-stage ballistic missile with a maximum range of about 3,700 kilometers with a 1,000 kilogram payload. Its first stage is probably based on that of the Chinese Dongfeng 3 (CSS-2) rocket developed in the 1960s. The Taepodong 2 second stage may be identical to the first stage of the Taepodong 1 (i.e., the No Dong rocket). With a 1,000 kilogram payload, the Taepodong 2 can reach Guam and Taiwan.

Although few technical details are known about the Unha-3, recent photographs suggest that its dimensions may be identical to those of the Unha 2, which is a three-stage missile with a maximum range of about 6,000 kilometers for a 1,000 kilogram payload and about 10,000 kilometers for a 500 kilogram payload.  Its first stage is similar to that of the Taepodong 2.  Its second stage appears to be similar to the Soviet R-26 missile, and its third stage appears to be similar to the second stage of the Iranian Safir-2 rocket. 

With a 1,000 kilogram payload, the Unha-2 already can reach Guam and some locations in Alaska. Ominously, with a 500 kilogram payload, the Unha-2 can strike any location in Hawaii or Alaska, as well as the entire West Coast and most of the of the Northwestern United States (as far south and east as Colorado).

Because the trend lines are bad and the situation is getting worse, cutting food aid and pursuing U.N. Security Council resolutions are insufficient, even feeble, responses. They may provide some room for venting and thereby keep a lid on tensions, but they will do absolutely nothing to retard North Korea’s unrelenting ambition of building a long-range nuclear weapons program.   

North Korea’s missile exhibitionism has exposed serious tactical mistakes in United States policy, and a sober assessment of North Korea policy assumptions should therefore produce both a new strategic approach and strengthen the U.S. defensive posture in Northeast Asia.  

Tactical mistake number one is Washington’s fixation on the quixotic objective of persuading North Korea to negotiate away its limited plutonium stockpile sufficient for 6 to 10 weapons.  Coercive diplomacy works best when seeking limited goals, not one that threatens regime survival. However, we have persevered with a maximalist goal despite our lack of leverage or credibility when it comes to meting out punishment for noncompliance. 

Meanwhile, North Korea has in all probability used Houdini-like misdirection to expand a more advanced highly-enriched uranium (HEU) weapon program, one that would provide for a larger nuclear stockpile, be harder to detect, and be easier to proliferate off the peninsula. In November 2010, when visiting U.S. experts were shown the North’s surprising achievements in fashioning an HEU program, the United States simply doubled down on its preexisting determination to pursue denuclearization as the supreme policy objective. America’s staunch ally in South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s government fully embraced the same approach. 

But without a realistic means of achieving denuclearization, our efforts only emit a smokescreen for North Korea’s ambitions. This false labor highlights a second tactical mistake: namely, becoming ever-more reliant on China to tamp down the North’s nuclear ambitions. Outsourcing the problem has presented China with a choice between pacifying a screaming baby (North Korea) and calming down a nonplussed parent (the United States). Given such a choice, China has found it easier to restrain the United States than North Korea. Consequently, China grows in importance, while U.S. influence is at risk of receding.

A third tactical mistake concerns the use of humanitarian assistance as a bargaining tool over the North’s nuclear programs. Humanitarian assistance should be given only on humanitarian grounds, and food provides no leverage vis-à-vis a goal vital to regime survival like a nuclear-armed missile. While the Obama administration wished to keep nutritional assistance separate from nuclear talks (and the food was a request from North Korea), the administration played into Pyongyang’s negotiating tactics by delaying humanitarian assistance that should have begun careful distribution months earlier. Meanwhile, the absence of humanitarian aid workers on the ground in North Korea is hurting malnourished and at-risk elements of North Korea and not the regime itself.

A fourth mistake on the part of U.S. negotiators has been to allow North Korea to wriggle out of a firm verbal commitment not to launch any missiles, including those that might send a satellite into orbit. We believe U.S. negotiators who say that they made this explicit in the processing of striking the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. We can also point to the international consensus – including China and Russia – that existing U.N. Security Council resolutions also prohibit the missile program that the North has so flamboyantly rolled out in the past month. But giving the North sufficient grey area to claim it was all a misunderstanding and that a weather satellite is harmless has made the United States look downright foolish.

Finally, we are the on verge of a fifth tactical error by not following up our admonitions with serious action. Declaring the missile launch to be unacceptable does more harm than good if our only responses are rhetorical blandishments and unenforced sanctions. 

The result of these and other tactical errors is that the United States is gradually paying reputational costs and teaching North Korea to ignore our warnings. Consider the fact that only several weeks ago President Barack Obama put U.S. credibility in the hands of a multilateral nuclear summit in Seoul that was overshadowed by the missile diplomacy of a military regime led by a man still in his twenties. In announcing the missile launch as a breach of contract and unacceptable, the United States offered little evidence that it would pursue options that the regime in Pyongyang might regret. Instead, Washington continued to look to Beijing to crack down on its ally, an action China has simply not been willing or able to do.

The United States needs a fresh assessment and a new long-range strategy for ending the threats posed by North Korea. However, that strategy will take some years to develop and execute.  Given the rationale for doing something, there are dramatic near-term military technical and operational alternatives for action available to the United States.

It’s too risky to pursue overt regime change in North Korea to stem Pyongyang’s provocations.  However, the United States can defeat North Korea’s unacceptable missile program by developing low technology risk, boost-phase intercept capabilities based on proven Cold War propulsion technologies. Specifically, the United States and its allies can plug the gap in current missile defenses, which address mid-phase (SM-3 missiles) and terminal phase (PAC-3) but not missiles in their ascent or boost phase. Previous attempts to build boost-phase interceptors failed because of immature laser technologies, impractical operational concepts, and exorbitant cost. 

This gap allows nations such as North Korea and Iran to challenge the United States and regional allies and friends with their medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile programs, and eventually with their intercontinental-range missiles. To fix this shortcoming, a high-speed (~3.5 to 5.0 km/s), two-stage, hit-to-kill interceptor missile, launched from a Predator-type UAV can defeat many of these ballistic missile threats in their boost phase.

A physics-based simulator can estimate the capabilities of a high-altitude, long endurance UAV-launched boost-phase interceptor (HALE BPI) launched from an altitude of approximately 60,000 feet.  Enabled by the revolution in UAVs, this proposed boost-phase interceptor, based on off-the-shelf technology, can be deployed in operationally feasible stations on the periphery of North Korea.

Using the HALE BPI planning software developed specifically to be easy to manipulate by non-technical operational and strategic planners, initial conservative estimates suggest that HALE BPI is technically and operationally viable against a range of realistic North Korean missile threats to Japan, Guam, and Hawaii.

The next time North Korea wants to flaunt its international commitments and thereby place in jeopardy regional security, it should know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the United States and its allies will shoot down that missile. Adding serious boost-phase intercept capabilities, while strengthening U.S. allied interoperability, can make the difference between advancing a dangerous North Korean capability and offering a stern lesson to Pyongyang about the resolve of the United States and its allies.

Patrick Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Matthew Giarra is a mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Paul S. Giarra is the president of Global Strategies & Transformation, a national defense and strategic planning consultancy.