Evolving Missile Threats: Shaping an American Approach


2013-04-04 by Richard Weitz

Under both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the United States has employed variety of tools to address evolving missile threats.

U.S. officials have engaged in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in an effort to persuade North Korea and Iran to end their nuclear weapons programs and refrain from the further testing of ballistic missiles. They have also used declaratory policy by repeatedly warning these countries against developing, testing, or using these capabilities.

The United States has provided U.S. allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia various security assistance to enhance their own defense capabilities and many of these allies are investing in defense systems themselves.

The Pentagon also bases or deploys large numbers of U.S. troops in each region, with a range of conventional and unconventional capabilities, reinforced by globally usable U.S.-based assets, such as long-range strategic bombers.

Kim Jong Un being briefed by his generals. (Photo: On the left side of the photo there is a white paper with lines which appears to be a map. The title in Korean of the map goes Plan for the strategic forces to target mainland U.S. If you view it carefully, there is a line leading to what appears to be Hawaii, California, and mainland U.S.) Credit: CNN

The United States has offered many of these countries diverse security guarantees, including implicit and sometimes explicit pledges to potentially employ U.S. nuclear capabilities to protect them.

Finally, the United States has been constructing missile defense architectures in each region as well as globally to counter Iranian and North Korean missile threats. These include short-range missile defense systems such as PAC-3 batteries, theater defenses such as THAAD and Aegis-equipped naval vessels, and ground-based midcourse interceptors based in Alaska and California.

In terms of diplomacy, Japan and European countries have been strong supporters of U.S. nonproliferation policies. Their governments have reinforced U.S. nonproliferation demands and warnings as well as enacted more rigorous nonproliferation sanctions than many analysts thought possible a few years ago.

But China and Russia have proven to be less reliable nonproliferation partners, at least with respect to the most serious threats emanating from Iran and North Korea.

Beijing and Moscow share many U.S. concerns regarding Iran and North Korea. China and Russia have urged Pyongyang directly not to test its ICBM prototype and to end its nuclear weapons program. They have also made clear that they would oppose an Iranian nuclear weapons program. They have voted for many U.N. Security Council resolutions to try to enforce these positions.

Chinese and Russian policy makers want to prevent the DPRK’s actions from encouraging other countries—such as South Korea, Japan, and perhaps other states—either through emulation or for defensive reasons, from pursuing their own offensive and defensive strategic weapons.

This applies particularly to nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and ballistic missile defenses, since these capabilities might under some contingencies might be used against Chinese and Russian military forces or diplomatic actions.

Nonetheless, while Chinese and Russian officials generally agree that the world would be a better place if neither Iran nor North Korea had nuclear-armed long-range missiles, they differ with Western governments on the tactics to pursue to avoid such an adverse outcome as well as on the relative severity of the threat.

At the end of the day, Chinese and Russian strategists consider the growing Iranian and North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities as posing only an indirect threat, since they do not foresee any reason why Tehran or Pyongyang would attack them.

Furthermore, in the case of North Korea, they oppose strong sanctions that could precipitate the DPRK regime’s collapse into a failed state. They seek to change Pyongyang’s behavior, but not its regime.

China and Russia remain more concerned about the DPRK’s collapse than its intransigence regarding its nuclear and missile development programs. Disintegration of the North Korean regime could induce widespread economic disruptions in East Asia, generate large refugee flows across their borders, weaken their influence in the Koreas by ending their unique status as interlocutors with Pyongyang, and potentially remove a buffer zone separating their borders from the U.S. ground forces based in South Korea.

At worst, North Korea’s demise could precipitate a military conflict on the peninsula—which could spill across into their territory. In addition, the substantial South Korean investment flowing into China and Russia would be redirected toward North Korea’s rehabilitation in advance of the peninsula’s possible reunification.

The United States has engaged in a deeper dialogue with China on missile defense than with Russia because U.S. regional allies saw this outreach as helpful for overcoming domestic opposition to the deployments and to minimize unpleasant Russian responses.

In contrast, none of our regional allies have urged the United States to engage in such talks with China since Beijing has not threatened them with retaliation in the same manner.

In addition, the Chinese government has not been eager for such a dialogue—and has not offered the prospect of a jointly run system and much improved relations as the Russians have done (though perhaps simply to derail the U.S. and NATO BMD programs).

The Obama administration’s commitment to reducing offensive nuclear forces and their role in international affairs, manifested in the 2010 New START agreement with Russia, and the U.S. economic situation have reduced U.S. nuclear forces and constrained U.S. defense spending.

Whether deterrence through threats of retaliation AFTER an attack can work in the cases of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea is also questionable.

The current administration’s missile defense policy presents both elements of change and continuity with the plans set out by the previous George W. Bush presidency.

The administration continues to oversee missile defense programs through the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), with the various U.S. Military Services providing operational control of deployed systems. Of the six main BMD programs the Obama administration inherited from its predecessor, the Obama administration has expanded some and recast or cut others.

It cancelled the Kinetic Energy Interceptor program due to cost considerations and the Airborne Laser program in February 2012 due to cost and technological challenges.

In contrast, the Obama administration has expanded the Aegis SM-3 system to make it the main BMD efforts, especially for intercepting long-range ballistic missiles in their mid-course phase.

Editor’s Note: But is this enough for evolving threats?

The Obama Administration has inherited investments from the Reagan years, is it not time to re-consider the importance of investments in greater offensive and defensive capabilities to deal with evolving missile threats?