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Save Our Seoul: South Korea Needs THAAD ASAP

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Missile Defense Agency photo

THAAD missile launch.

WASHINGTON: North Korea can’t nuke the US, not yet. But boy dictator Kim Jong-un already has about a thousand ballistic missiles capable of reaching South Korea and, in some cases, Japan. Most are Scud-like weapons with conventional explosives but a few might be nuclear-tipped. Against a large-scale launch, former Pentagon strategist Van Jackson said this morning, the missile defenses on the peninsula are “woefully outgunned.” In that scenario, the current combination of Army Patriot launchers and Navy Aegis ships couldn’t defend our own bases, let alone our allies’ cities.

As North Korea’s arsenal grows, said Jackson, “we’re kind of inching our way towards crisis and nobody’s doing anything to stop it.”

That’s why we must build up missile defenses in South Korea, said Jackson, State Department veteran Joel Wit, and Aerospace Corporation scientist John Schilling at a 38 North press breakfast this morning and in follow-ups with Breaking Defense. Step one, Jackson said: Deploy a THAAD battery, which brings longer-range radar and interceptors than the Patriots. In longer run, the three experts added, laser weapons and rail guns might fill a valuable niche role — but only a niche. (More on that tomorrow).

Just the idea of deploying THAAD is already controversial in South Korea and outright condemned by China, admitted Jackson, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. But having just come from the Asan Plenum in Seoul — a gathering considered “the Davos of Korea” — Jackson said the politics of THAAD are shifting.

“The Koreans are much more favorable about THAAD,” he said, “than they were six months ago.” That’s not because of any brilliant strategy on America’s part — the US hasn’t even made an official proposal to deploy new missile defense, he said — but because of “heavy-handedness” on the part of the Chinese. In a twist that must make Sun Tzu spin in his grave, China has lobbied South Korea so hard against the THAAD deployment that Koreans, as a backlash, are now more in favor of it.

Even so, said Jackson, “I wouldn’t anticipate South Korea asking for a deployment of THAAD without some kind of precipitating event, [such as] maybe a fourth nuclear test” by the North. Of course, if there’s one thing we can count on in the unpredictable peninsula, it’s that Pyongyang will do something provocative, given time.

But might Pyongyang and Beijing seen a THAAD deployment as provocative itself? Might it raise the risk of a regional arms race, asked an Arms Control Association staffer in the audience, by causing China and Russia to invest in new ways to overcome US-made missile defenses?

“This stuff is already happening,” said Jackson, pointing to Chinese and Russian research into such things as hypersonic weapons. Both countries are already basing their military investments on the possibility of conflict with the West: Strengthening missile defenses in Korea will do little to change that calculus.

As a practical matter, Schilling warned me in an email, if we do get into an arms race with China on the peninsula, we and South Korea will lose: “The Chinese can win that fight by proxy, shipping cheap missile parts to North Korea faster and in greater quantity than we can deploy THAAD or Patriot” — Pyongyang relies currently on black market imports of aging Russian tech — “or they could massively expand their own 2nd Artillery, or both.”

Beijing does depict US missile defenses as destablizing. At the Asan Plenum, said Jackson, the Chinese participants argued that THAAD posed an offensive threat, with radar and missiles that could reach right across North Korea into Chinese territory. That’s technically true, he said, but irrelevant: Both THAAD’s radar and its interceptors are designed to deal with incoming missiles, not to attack ground targets or spy on Chinese activities.

“It can’t see inside a Chinese bedroom,” said Jackson “[The Chinese argument] makes it sound like we’re able to use the x-band radar to spy on China in a way we’re not capable of doing already.”

The THAAD interceptors could theoretically target Chinese aircraft — missile defense systems can usually do air defense as well — but even if they were launched from right below the DMZ, they lack the range to penetrate significantly into Chinese airspace.

“The impression I have, the impression that many of the South Koreans shared, the impression that the Chinese gave, was that pressuring South Korea to not allow the deployment of THAAD had nothing to do with military operations,” Jackson said. Instead, he said, the Chinese were worried about the political significance of THAAD as barometer of US-South Korean relations: “The deployment of THAAD is an indicator that the alliance is still functioning.”

“It’s a bigger political issue,” agreed Wit. “Anything that creates a tighter and closer US-South Korean alliance is probably something the Chinese are not going to support.”

That said, the Chinese do agree that Pyongyang’s growing arsenal is a problem. In his conversations with Chinese participants at Anan, Jackson said, “they see North Korea’s nuclear missile developments as very alarming.” They just think the US should rely on diplomacy rather than military deterrence, let alone preemption.

Diplomacy with North Korea, however, has provided decades of frustration for little gain. The Foreign Ministry has little power to make deals, while the military has no experience or aptitude at dealing with outsiders, said Witt, a veteran of such negotiations himself.

Meanwhile the danger continues to grow, albeit slowly and painfully for the cash-strapped Hermit Kingdom. “The lack of progress over the last few decades is striking,” writes Schilling and co-author Henry Kan in their recent report, “The Future of North Korean Nuclear Delivery Systems.” North Korea’s missile-makers have long since been outstripped by their former protégés in Iran and Pakistan.

Pyongyang’s arsenal still relies on old Soviet technology. Most of its missiles are derived from the 1960s-vintage Scud. But that’s still dangerous stuff. The Nodong “Super Scud” variant has enough range — 7,500 to 10,000 miles — to hit all of South Korea and much of Japan. It is small enough to hide in caves to avoid airstrikes, then pop out to launch. And it may already be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

But North Korea has more powerful technologies in development:

– The Unha, aka the Taepodong, is designed to carry satellites — it has one successful launch out of four attempts so far — but it could potentially drop a warhead anywhere on the planet. Just fueling the massive rocket takes “days,” however, Schilling said, which would give plenty of warning of an attack. (North Korea’s missiles almost all use liquid fuel, which must be loaded just before launch, in contrast to US solid-fueled weapons, which can stay in silos for years).

– The Musudan is an old Soviet submarine-launched design repurposed as a truck-mounted missile. Its estimated range of 1,500-2,200 miles could hit targets as far away as Guam, Schilling writes, but it’s never actually been tested.

– The KN-08 is a next-generation weapon combining the best of the Unha and the Musudan, in theory. The intent is a missile small enough for a mobile launcher, yet long-ranged enough (5,625 miles) to hit the West Coast of the United States. The KN-08 hasn’t been flight-tested either, however. In fact, said Schilling, there’s no way to test an intercontinental missile within North Korean territory: The only way to put an ICBM through its paces would be to fire it well out to sea and hope it landed near enough the aim point that a waiting ship could gather test data.

– There are also reports that Pyongyang is pursuing submarine-launched missiles. A successful launch from underwater will be hard, however, and North Korean subs would push the limits of their endurance getting into striking distance of the US.

In the near term, only a small number of poorly tested, unreliable missiles could reach the United States. That’s adequately unnerving, especially if some have nuclear warheads, but it’s also the kind of threat that current US defenses are optimized against.

By contrast, the threat to South Korea is already enough to overwhelm missile defenses, and it’s only getting worse. Is there a new model of missile defense that can turn the tide? That’s the question we ask leading experts in our next story, out tomorrow.


Edited 12:25 pm to clarify opening sentences and correct Dr. Wit’s title.

What do you think?