North Korea’s repeated nuclear and missile tests have caused panic in the region. Japan is frightened because the ballistic missiles are flying over its territory. In addition, North Korea has threatened retaliation in response to military drills, stating that the “next” target is Guam, a U.S. territory. How North Korea’s neighbors are responding to this aggression is essential because population centers must be protected if Pyongyang launches a missile attack.
At this time, Japan has two layers of missile defense protection. The first layer consists of Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) destroyers, located in the Sea of Japan. Aegis BMD defeats short- and intermediate-range ballistic missile threats by shooting Standard Missile-3s (SM-3) during the midcourse phase of flight.
Japan became interested in the Aegis BMD system in 1998 when North Korea test-fired a Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile overhead. Tokyo has worked closely with Washington to develop the SM-3 and plans to update its destroyers with the system. To date, four of six ships have been equipped, and a fifth will be modified by March of next year.
Tokyo has expressed interest in deploying an Aegis Ashore system, as well. Aegis Ashore is the land-based version of the Aegis Combat System. It protects assets from short- and intermediate-range ballistic threats with phased-array radars, fire control directors, computers and missiles. Japan will seek funding in its next fiscal budget to pay for design costs.
The second layer of Japan’s missile defense is the Patriot Advanced Capability-3(PAC-3) system. PAC-3 uses hit-to-kill technology to destroy incoming warheads with kinetic energy to prevent them from hitting their targets. This architecture defends against short-range ballistic missiles, large-caliber rockets, and air threats while simultaneously transmitting precision data to other theater elements to support situational awareness.
After North Korea test-fired a missile that flew over Japan last month, Tokyo repositioned a PAC-3 nearby that location as a precaution. In addition, Japan moved four of its other PAC-3 systems after North Korea threatened to fire missiles at Guam.
South Korea deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) last month. THAAD aims to protect against short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their final phase of flight. This land-based system is globally-transportable and rapidly deployable, helpful when dealing with tense situations such as the North Korean threat. Of course, Beijing demanded South Korea remove the THAAD anti-missile system, fearing it could be used to monitor the Chinese.
Most recently, South Korea has staged bombing drills with the U.S., sending B-1B bombers from Andersen Air Force Base and F-35 fighters from Guam and Japan to join South Korean F-15K fighters. Seoul has also conducted live-fire drills with warships off the Korean Peninsula to display military force and hopefully deter North Korea from launching more missile tests.
China is North Korea’s main political supporter and largest trading partner. Chinese experts have acknowledged that “we are right now at the lowest point in the relationship between China and North Korea.” Beijing has made statements that it could defend North Korea if it were attacked by the U.S. However, Beijing has also shifted its posture near its border with Pyongyang, which may suggest it is preparing for North Korea to fall.
After U.S. national security advisor H.R. McMaster confirmed that there is a military option for dealing with North Korea, Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai publicly stated that the U.S. should stop making military threats. While China thinks the U.S. should do more to resume dialogue and negotiate with North Korea, Beijing has been reluctant to utilize its economic influence to create such an environment. Some believe this is because Beijing does not want a democratic country on its border. Others think China uses North Korea to distract America from Beijing’s activities in the Asia Pacific and to potentially create disputes between the U.S. and its allies.
Unfortunately, diplomatic solutions to date have proven to be ineffective with North Korea. In fact, the last four American presidents failed to hinder Pyongyang’s development towards a nuclear weapon. President George H.W. Bush tried to incentivize good behavior by removing U.S. nuclear weapons and reducing the number of U.S. soldiers in the area. In addition, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried to negotiate restrictions while President Barack Obama issued economic sanctions.
Successful military action in North Korea would be very difficult to achieve. First of all, North Korea shares a border with South Korea, putting a U.S. ally in even more risk. In addition, identifying and targeting all of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and launchers while shooting missiles out of the sky before they reach South Korea, Japan, Guam, and troops would require complex coordinated efforts.
As America contemplates how to protect allies from North Korea, it also must guard itself in the event nuclear deterrence fails. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense, deployed in California and Alaska, allows combatant commanders to destroy a limited number of intermediate- and long-range missiles in space aimed for the U.S. homeland. Such missiles can achieve speeds of several miles per second and may carry a combination of multiple warheads and penetration aids, so interception is very challenging. Overall, GMD has a success rate of about 83 percent.
The GMD system should be tested more frequently to further improve its protection capabilities. Past tests have verified that lessons are learned from trial and error. In December 2004, a test allowed engineers to identify and fix a software issue with the system and a January 2012 test demonstrated that a new kill vehicle was able to discriminate a warhead amongst decoys and debris. While these tests were branded as failures by some, they actually helped make the system stronger.
Perfecting the GMD system is essential because it is the only architecture in place to protect parts of the U.S. homeland. Refining the reliability of the system would mean that it could eventually be replicated in additional locations across the country, such as on the East Coast, to protect against nuclear aggression.
As the world is watching the North Korean threat, neighbors in the region are making proactive decisions for protection. While the U.S. is a faithful ally to South Korea and Japan, it must also rapidly boost its efforts to protect its homeland in case nuclear deterrence fails and Pyongyang launches an intercontinental ballistic missile at the U.S.
Constance Douris is Vice President of the Lexington Institute. She has published articles and white papers on the smart grid, nuclear deterrence, missile defense and European security.