Tough to intercept missiles


Due to the severe economic slump, the United States recently announced that it would make substantial cuts to its costly and controversial missile defense program. Several new parts of the planned shield are to be canceled.

Critics say the cuts are being made just when the threat from North Korean missiles to the U.S., its forces deployed in Asia, and its allies and friends in the region is increasing. Among U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea are the most affected.

Following reports that North Korea is preparing more missile launches with ranges that could reach U.S. territory in the Pacific, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said June 18 that he had ordered special measures to protect Hawaii, which is 7,100 km from North Korea.

Hawaii is the headquarters of the U.S. military in the Pacific. The first Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors in a batch of eight scheduled to be integrated into the missile defense system this year will be stationed in Hawaii, while a sea-based radar that was docked there will remain for the time being to provide added detection and tracking capability.

However, THAAD is designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles just minutes before they hit, not the missiles with ranges of anywhere from 3,000 km to 6,700 km or more that North Korea is expected to fire in coming days.

As North Korea continues to develop its missile and nuclear weapon capability, the key question is whether the U.S. and Japan, its main missile defense partner, could successfully use their interceptor rockets to shoot down an incoming North Korean missile if an order to do so was given.

It seems unlikely that Pyongyang would target the U.S., Japan or any other country with a test missile. The main worry is that it could veer off course and become a threat.

Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that he was “90 percent-plus” confident the U.S. could shoot down a North Korean missile.

But what kind of missile and in what numbers? At the end of 2008, the missile shield stationed in the U.S., on U.S. territory or bases in Asia and the Pacific, on U.S. and Japanese warships, and in Japan had a total of 724 interceptors of various kinds.

To counter long-range missiles, the U.S. has stationed at least 26 interceptor rockets in Alaska and California.

However, neither the interceptors in silos in Alaska and California, nor the THAAD batteries, have been tested in combat. Nor have the 32 standard missile interceptors aboard 18 U.S. Navy Aegis ballistic missile defense warships. Their interceptors are designed to hit enemy missiles with ranges of up to 5,500 km.

The other layer of the present U.S. missile shield, consists of over 635 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors based in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere to guard against short- and medium-range missile attack. Earlier versions of the Patriots had a mixed performance record against incoming missiles in Middle East conflicts.

In the last two years, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, which is responsible for testing and integrating the ballistic missile shield, has reported eight significant flight test delays, four target failures out of 18 target launches, and one interceptor failure in flight.

It is also far from certain whether U.S. rockets designed to shoot down longer-range missiles can distinguish between decoys and the real things.

A report to Congress headed by two former U.S. defense secretaries, William Perry and James Schlesinger, concluded that although the interceptors based in Alaska and California to guard against long-range missiles had “demonstrated some capability against unsophisticated threats,” they were presently “incapable of defending against complex threats.” Far from deterring missile proliferation, the U.S. and allied missile defense system is in danger of being overwhelmed. It is far cheaper to build more missiles to swamp defenses than it is to put in place costly interceptors, sensors, and command-and-control networks to counter the missiles.

By the end of 2009, there are scheduled to be a total of 864 interceptors in the U.S.-led missile shield. However, the U.S. military calculates that there has been an increase of more than 1,200 additional ballistic missiles in the past five years, bringing the total outside the U.S., NATO, Russia and China to over 5,900. Short-range missiles (150-799 km) make up 93 percent of this total while medium-range missiles (800-2,399 km) comprise six percent.

Many of these missiles are within range of U.S. forces and bases in Northeast Asia and the Middle East. North Korea alone has deployed over 600 short-range missiles and possibly as many as 320 medium-range missiles. The former can strike the whole of South Korea, while the latter can reach much of Japan. Armed with conventional high explosive warheads or chemical weapons and fired in salvos or mixed groups, they would be very difficult to counter and cause havoc for a civilian population.

The big fear, of course, is that with more testing and time, North Korea will be able to develop reliable long-range missiles and arm some of them with nuclear warheads as the ultimate guarantee of survival for the regime in Pyongyang. It is significant that in their meeting in Washington on June 16, Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak issued a joint statement that, for the first time, spelled out in writing that America was extending the protection of its nuclear umbrella to South Korea.

Ultimately, the only deterrent likely to prevent Pyongyang using missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction is the knowledge that the counter-strike from the U.S. and its Asian allies would annihilate the North Korean regime.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.