North Korea recently (August 24) conducted a test of the K-N-11, solid fuelled, submarine launched ballistic missile. There are a number of issues worth reflecting upon in light of the test, but I shall restrict myself here to its possible implications for Ballistic Missile Defense.
Toward that end excellent discussion by Jeffrey Lewis, the founder and main booster engine of the armscontrolwonk blog, and David Wright, long one of, if not, the most knowledgeable observers in the open source domain on North Korea’s missile programme, have focused on the range of the K-N-11 test and what that might tell us about the maximum range of the missile.
The range of the test was 500km, but as observed by Lewis and Wright the K-N-11 followed a lofted trajectory, entailing that the maximum range is greater than 500km. Wright has the range at 1,250km, about the same as the Nodong hitherto seen as the mainstay of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
The Nodong is liquid fuelled, we might recall. The successful deployment of a solid fuelled missile of similar range (the K-N-11 can also be fitted for land based launch, of course) combined with the development of more compact nuclear warheads would be matters of significant strategic import.
Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (or THAAD), one of the main components of the US Ballistic Missile Defense Programme, also deployed by allies in the line of North Korean fire, is meant to counter North Korea’s ballistic missiles.
The K-N-11 is problematical for THAAD, on Lewis’ reckoning, because,
THAAD has a forward-looking radar with a 120-degree field of view. In the case of a single THAAD battery, North Korea’s submarines would not have to travel very far out to sea to attack the THAAD system from behind the field of view of its radar.
Additional THAAD batteries could obviate this, however
Of course, this does little to address the possibility of lofted attacks, which could be launched from the waters near North Korea’s naval bases — or from North Korea itself if a land-based variant is deployed. Lofting a long-range missile results in reentry at very high speeds and at a very severe angle. Whether THAAD can deal with a lofted KN-11 depends in part on the missile’s range.
Lewis expresses concerns about the ability of THAAD to interdict a fast approaching K-N-11 payload on an acute angle of attack, focusing especially on the relative inability of THAAD to meet such threats from IRBM’s. However, on Wright’s calculations the K-N-11 maximum range puts it into the MRBM range.
Lewis observes that the Pentagon is confident of THAAD’s capabilities against MRBMs. Although some scepticism is in order, given what we know of the BMD testing programme.
It has been argued that Ballistic Missile Defense does not solve the problem of ballistic missiles such as the K-N-11. That is best done by diplomacy. However, Ballistic Missile Defense, perversely, some have argued, provides political elites in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo with a false sense of security.
Misplaced confidence in BMD capabilities gives political elites space to pursue policies, such as containment and regime change through strangulation, regarding North Korea that otherwise would be seen as too risky.
I do not accept this analysis.
BMD doesn’t deter North Korea’s ballistic missile programme but it does deter a more potent threat to the policy of containment and strangulation, namely the domestic constituency of political elites. So long as the US, South Korean and Japanese populations are bedazzled by Ballistic Missile Defense then the risky game can continue without too much fear that the deterrent will be aroused.
We are sleep walking to catastrophe on the Korean peninsula and the main effect of BMD, despite all its elaborate sensors and radar, is to keep us blind to the growing danger.
Lewis observes, of those who seek to live with a deterrence relationship with North Korea, that
So while I am sympathetic to those who recoil at the idea of sharing vulnerability with Kim Jong Un, don’t kid yourself: arms-racing only binds our fates more closely together. It’s a Gordian knot, where our best efforts to wriggle free of vulnerability only tighten the ropes. Our best option, unpalatable as it may be, involves finding ways to discourage North Korea from developing new capabilities. Defense is a far less effective strategy.
While this is indeed true, the problem remains that growing North Korean capabilities only encourages further investment in Ballistic Missile Defense and there are plenty who don’t mind making such an investment even though it doesn’t really defend, and only helps us edge closer to the precipice.