2015-08-02 By Richard Weitz
The United States aims to avert regional conflicts and aggressive actions against its Asian allies and partners.
Missile defense is a core component of this U.S. strategy in Asia, along with regional diplomacy (strengthening old alliances while building new friendships), economic initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and other measures.
Effective missile defense can, along with dispersing U.S. regional assets, hardening potential targets, and promoting military inter-operability with potential military partners, enhance regional deterrence and defense by complicating a potential aggressor’s planning and negating the value of their missile threats.
To make its extended deterrence guarantees credible, Washington must demonstrate that it will deter and defeat potential aggression against its allies despite the perceived vulnerabilities of U.S. forces in Asia and U.S. allies to the growing portfolio of Chinese and North Korean medium-range missiles.
Each country has more than one thousand ballistic missiles armed with conventional and unconventional warheads. Beijing targets Taiwan, while Pyongyang’s missile arsenal is directed at South Korea, but both countries are prepared to launch missiles against Japan and U.S. targets in Asia.
China opposes U.S. regional missile defenses since they strengthen U.S. alliances.
Missile defenses are a natural evolution of the U.S. alliances in Asia. New technological threats require new technological responses, such as joint missile defenses. The Chinese discount technological developments or North Korean aggression as drivers of U.S. regional BMD partnerships. They oppose BMD cooperation for making U.S. alliances more enduring, more joint, and more effective.
In the case of South Korea, Beijing wants to loosen military ties between Seoul and Washington and eventually become the dominant partner of both North and South Korea.
Just as European countries are reluctant to define Russia as a potential missile threat, so in Asia the United States and its allies have cited North Korea as the focus of the missile defense efforts rather than China.
Asian countries have a complicated view of the China-U.S. relationship. A few years ago, Asian countries worried that Chinese-U.S. relations were becoming too close; now they worry about being caught between their worsening tensions.
The Obama administration does not pursue a containment strategy regarding China and denies that its missile defenses are directed against Beijing’s massive missile arsenal
Well before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe more openly described China as a growing military threat, missile defense cooperation with the United States ceased being controversial in Japan, despite the unprecedented level of bilateral BMD collaboration. The 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report described Japan as one of the most important U.S. partners in this area. This cooperation had to overcome technology-sharing issues and Japanese concern over how China might respond.
In the end, the advantages of BMD cooperation with Washington—such as improved defenses against North Korean threats, strengthened security ties with the United States, and reduced pressure on Japan to build its own nuclear deterrent—outweighed the costs.
In terms of future challenges, Japan and the United States both need more missile defense ships and BMD interceptors. Japan must decide to what extent it wants an autonomous early warning system or one more interoperable with the United States, which would provide redundancy for space assets that are inherently vulnerable.
In addition to missile defenses, Japan has made progress on dispersal (many runways) and interoperability with the United States but has not hardened likely targets sufficiently.
Conversely, South Korea ignores the Chinese military threat to Japan and the United States and remains concerned about Beijing’s opposition to ROK-U.S. missile defense cooperation.
Seoul sees Beijing as an important economic partner and critical actor in resolving the DPRK problem, though it is hard to discern what China has done in this regard. The ROK has kept its missile defense program detached from U.S. regional defenses and focused on developing domestic capabilities to counter the DPRK’s shorter-range missiles, though the preference remains on more offensive and preemptive strategies.
Due to the large number of missiles and artillery systems aimed at South Korea, the ROK military aims to rely on massive artillery counterbattery strikes and some preemptive missile strikes to suppress the North’s strike weapons soon after hostilities commence.
However, the ROK has only recently begun to acquire sensors and systems (like Global Hawk and the F-35) able to locate and destroy the North’s mobile missiles, but for now ROK planners expect the United States to accomplish this mission using its own ISR and strike assets as part of their agreed “4D” strategy to detect, defend, disrupt, and destroy North Korea’s missile inventory.
The ROK also needs to acquire more precision-guided munitions and promote greater jointness in what has traditionally been an Army-dominated military.
The Pentagon would also like the ROK to upgrade its national missile defenses and allow the United States to deploy a THAAD battery in South Korea to better protect U.S. ground forces from DPRK longer-range missiles.
Although Chinese opposition to such a deployment is strong, it has become so heavy-handed as to have become counterproductive. Nonetheless, a desire for strategic autonomy, a national mission to develop indigenous missile capabilities, popular opposition to spending funds on missile defenses, the ROK military’s preference for more offensive missile and artillery systems, and limited South Korean interest in expanding its regional security role until the North Korean threat ends make it unlikely that the ROK will purchase its own THAAD system anytime soon.
These tensions between Japan and South Korea make it hard for the United States to promote the kind of regional missile defense structure already present in Europe and under construction in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. BMD cooperation in the region is primarily bilateral, resembling the overall U.S. defense relations in the region.
In addition, allied missile defenses must compete for regional attention and budgets with a number of other defense concerns, including maritime domain awareness, paramilitary deployments such as coast guards, unmanned systems, power projection capabilities, and maritime domain awareness.
Despite having a declared BMD research and development program, China has not been interested in engaging in a missile defense dialogue with the United States.
The U.S. is concerned that Beijing’s declared missile defense programs are actually designed to develop anti-satellite weapons, while the Chinese seem more concerned with U.S. nuclear and precision-strike conventional weapons than U.S. missile defenses. Efforts to sustain a China-U.S. dialogue on “strategic stability,” which could encompass these broader issues as well as missile defense, has proven difficult due to a lack of interest in Beijing.
As for Australia, its national security community has been ambivalent about missile defense.
The Labor government was unenthusiastic about missile defense and eager to sustain good relations with China as well as the United States. The current conservative government is interested in deepening security ties with Japan as well as the United States, which could extend include missile defense.
The military also wants missile defense capabilities to protect its deployed forces but its budget is constrained, the country has other defense procurement priorities, and justifying missile defenses to counter an implausible North Korean threat rather than China’s growing missile capabilities would be a hard sell in Beijing.
Against this background, the U.S. missile defense effort needs to achieve greater coordination among all the relevant U.S. agencies and with foreign partners.
Washington needs to develop some creative mechanism to promote greater intelligence sharing and missile defense collaboration between South Korea and Japan, such as creating a regional data fusion center in which the U.S, would share regional intelligence among all partners without necessarily identifying its source (sparing South Koreans from knowing what they are sharing with or learning from Japan).
Australia as well as India and the Philippines might also participate if the U.S. could justify the mechanism to the participants (though probably not China) as a transparency and confidence-building measure.
To remove possible political barriers to its regional BMD plans, Washington must overcome foreign concerns about U.S. credibility including due to inadequate defense spending and the contested prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
Regional intelligence cooperation can improve when the sources and methods used to acquire the information are concealed, resulting in less fear of exposing assets and reducing the perceived national ownership of intelligence.
The United States has to exercise BMD capabilities regularly with regional partners since there will be no time to rehearse them in a crisis.