The Challenges of Responding to North Korea with Missile Defense
2017-06-08 By Danny Lam
The successful test of an interceptor by the Missile Defense Agency May 30 caused Vice Adm. James Syring to claim that CONUS is “safe” until 2020, or at least 3 years ahead of DPRK ICBMs.
Let’s begin by taking this claim at face value.
VAM Syring’s assuring statement only applies to CONUS and Alaska, which exclude Canada, Japan, South Korea, US bases like Guam, Australia, New Zealand, all of Europe and the Middle East if an ICBM is launched from DPRK’s axis partner Iran or from DPRK.
With the exception of Japan, there are minimal defenses in South Korea and Poland (limited coverage that faces South against Iran) and effectively none elsewhere.
For American allies, VAM Syring’s statement is a veiled and stark warning that America First is the de facto missile defense policy for any ally who don’t avail themselves of the means to defend themselves like Germany and Canada (i.e. NATO Article 3 obligations).
The May 30 BMD test in no way address the proven ability of DPRK to overwhelm defenses with SRBM and MRBMs of Japan and South Korea by the sheer force of numbers. DPRK’s recent multiple simultaneous missile launch exercises confirmed this doctrine.
Presently, DPRK is known to have sufficient quantities of Short and MRBM missiles to inundate the deployed missile defense in much of Japan, S. Korea and nearby US bases.
In other words, the May 30 test provide no comfort to US allies.
American priorities for extension of BMD coverage will begin with states like Hawaii, extending to Pacific major US bases like Guam and Diego Garcia, and then to allies that carry their fair share of the defense burden which exclude a majority of NATO members.
The question is, how might DPRK defeat the CONUS US BMD?
The weakest link in the US BMD is in sensors and communications.
Continuous and extensive monitoring of launch sites by airborne and space based sensors worked well against liquid fueled rockets that require large convoys of trucks to support each launch and a long setup / fueling / launch preparation time.
Solid fueled missiles, however, require just a few — though distinctive TELs — that can be moved about quickly. To pick out a relatively small S/MRBM canister TEL moving about in the area the size of North Korea, with many hills and terrain clutter, is a difficult feat before consideration of the likely deployment of decoys or active interference with sensors and platforms (e.g. by shooting down airborne radar platforms).
If DPRK to adopt a “launch on warning” or “launch under attack” doctrine that pre-emptively attack both the US and allies by striking first, and bet that a mass attack will defeat any BMD.
Alternatively, there is the option of an offensive first strike that takes advantage of their plentiful supply of liquid fueled missiles by using it first. The first warning of launch we may have may be from the SBIRs spotting the missile plume.
The May 30 test show this can be handled up to the saturation of the BMD system.
Who says NORKs will play this game?
NORKs can use their nuclear devices for combination high altitude EMP and sensor blinding purposes. The present policy of US and allies is to not shoot down DPRK missile launches that do not appear to threaten to land on their territory even if they see the launch preparations over days.
This plays right into DPRK hands if they were to loft a sensor blinder / EMP device that detonates just outside of territorial waters of nearby allies. TYP-2 radars in Japan and Alaska can conceivably be blinded by a single nuclear device while another tackled Wake Island’s TYP-2 and the SBX radar.
Once the sensors are blinded, a strike on CONUS or allies can proceed with the BMD system down or severely degraded with their next volley of liquid fueled missiles.
Solid fueled mobile missiles can then be retained as deterrent against retaliation.
Did the May 30 test consider this?
DPRK have other options besides using nuclear weapons on land targets. There is an implicit assumption that DPRK will adhere to the Outer Space Treaty and not deploy or use nuclear weapons in orbit or space.
Suppose if DPRK were to launch “peaceful” satellites that orbits over CONUS that contain a thermonuclear device optimized to generate EMP?
How would the US be able to determine in a short timeframe if the “satellite” do not contain a nuclear device?
Would the US pre-emptively destroy it?
Or take the time to examine, inspect it first?
Should we presume that DPRK will play “fair” or “by the rules”?
Can we take the chance based on what we know about DPRK now?
A nuclear detonation with a combination EMP / sensor blinding function could be used as a prelude to an ICBM launch from DPRK. Exo-atmospheric nuclear detonations will be devastating to vital communications links in orbit and terrestrially for a time.
Since the vast majority of electronic devices are civilian and not shielded, their disruption by EMP will lead to, at least in the short term, a collapse of the civilian economy in the footprint affected. If the device is thermonuclear, the EMP pulse generated can readily overwhelm any conceivable defenses and have a footprint exceeding CONUS.
Have the US military thought about how something as simple as tens of thousands of disabled cars blocking choke points like bridges, roads, ramps, etc. will impede their ability to mobilize?
Or dissipate resources for aiding civilians faced with a collapse of all essential services including food, water, medical, etc.?
Imagine if the commute to a radar site that once took 35 minutes became impossible unless crews are fetched by helicopter?
Assuming that the helos did not have their electronics knocked out and are not grounded by something as simple as lack of fuel because the pumps don’t work. Or the technicians that know how to repair it and source parts cannot be found?
Would the US order a nuclear retaliatory strike against DPRK immediately after an EMP strike that disabled most of the US civilian economy but yet caused few civilian casualties?
Such a strike against DPRK will no doubt cause massive contamination and casualties throughout northeast Asia.
What would be the consideration if DPRK retains a capacity to launch a “counter value” strike against civilian targets of US and allies?
Could the US conceivably back down and sue for peace? Japan? South Korea?
VAM Syring based his estimate of a 3 year lead on the intelligence community’s consensus forecast and projections of where DPRK’s will be with respect to DPRK reentry vehicle, countermeasures, and rocket motor technology.
No doubt that VAM is acting in good faith when he assured the Trump Administration and Congress that MDA’s interceptors will work.
And no doubt they will work against the anticipated threat based on the IC’s assessment.
But what if the threat is not a nuclear ballistic missile strike on CONUS population / military targets?
What if NORKs decided to target the electronics infrastructure of the US?
What the IC have not done, however, is to think like a North Korean rather than a Soviet or PRC military.
NORKs are not constrained by the abhorrence of war that Russians and Americans have, or squeamish about striking first even if it cause hundreds of millions of casualties, as long as they can prevail in a war termination situation.
Or to target the highly vulnerable, fragile monoculture of electronics based technology in the US.
The above analyses illustrate how one might consider defeating the rudimentary missile defense of CONUS if one thinks like North Korea, and not a traditional First Nuclear Age power.
Let’s err on the safe side.
We may not have a 3 year lead.
Editor’s Note: If you wish to comment on this article, see the following: