The problems of conventionally armed ballistic missiles are twofold. First, they are difficult to integrate with other military operations, unless they are very accurate. Even if accurate, they represent an inefficient means of delivering ordnance, usually carrying smaller payloads than aircraft or modern artillery, at greater cost. Second, strategic campaigns of the sort that might make use of conventionally armed missiles rarely succeed; target populations can withstand far greater stress without breaking, and conventional ballistic missiles cannot deliver enough ordnance to threaten serious economic or industrial disruption. For states without significant strike capability, ballistic missiles offer something, but no serious, integrated threat. Nuclear tipped ballistic missiles surely overcome these problems, but suffer from their own sets of technical and strategic problems.
So why does panic break out every time North Korea or Iran announces a ballistic missile test? Part of the answer is surely that defense forces look for missions, especially in response to overwrought politicians. The North Korean missile test posed no risk to Japan, and didn’t change North Korea’s threat to Japan one iota. Shooting down the North Korean ballistic missile would have been the height of diplomatic irresponsibility. At the same time, Japan is genuinely and correctly concerned about far more plentiful, effective Chinese missiles; the North Korean weapons provide a useful stalking horse for the Chinese. Ballistic missiles matter if they carry tracking systems capable of having a significant effect on military operations. This is why we care about Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, and about other hyper-accurate Chinese and Russian (some reports suggest that Iskander missiles launched during the South Ossetia War may have done some damage, although these reports remain sketchy) ballistic missile systems.
Excessive excitement about ballistic missile developments surely serves some purposes, but it primarily gives states like North Korea and Iran easy public relations wins. A more careful approach would focus on the actual threat posed by advanced missiles, distinguishing the Russian and Chinese arsenals from the vast array of ancient Scuds and Scud derivatives held by states worldwide. This would make fear mongering more difficult, but would have the advantage of placing the real threat in meaningful perspective.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.