This week’s test of a nuclear weapon by North Korea, its third, is only one piece of bad news. 38 North, a well-respected web site that follows events on the Korean peninsula, is reporting that the North is building a very large missile facility and associated structures that will allow it to launch longer-range ballistic missiles, possibly ICBMs. The Musudan-ri site could be completed by 2016 by which time Pyongyang’s nuclear scientists could have a nuclear weapon small enough to be a viable payload for the larger missile. Equally worrisome, according to 38 North, are the similarities in the Korean site and an Iranian missile launch facility at Semnan. Not only is North Korea continuing to pursue the strategic “brass ring” of an intercontinental nuclear weapons capability, it is also deploying an array of ballistic missiles that allow it to threaten both its immediate neighbor to the South and more distant countries, including Japan. Extrapolating from recent events, North Korea, perhaps even Iran, could have a nuclear weapon and long-range delivery system by the end of the decade.
The international community is clearly incapable of devising a diplomatic and economic strategy that compels rogue states such as North Korea and Iran from pursuing the goal of acquiring nuclear weapons and long-range delivery means. The U.S. and its allies continue to hold out hope that ever-tightening sanctions will work. So far, there is no reason to believe any combination of “soft power” tools and techniques are having the desired impact. Even if one adheres to the general notion that these rogue regimes can be deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation from a deliberate, calculated attack on the United States or its regional allies, there is no way to guard against mistakes, particularly if one or both of these nations are in the middle of a local or regional crisis.
Pyongyang and Teheran’s behavior over the past decade make the case for continuing, even expanding U.S. investments in theater ballistic missile defenses. The current U.S. plan for the deployment of advanced theater missile defenses could be in place to respond to this threat. The Obama Administration’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) planned to roll out a new and more capable system every two years or so, beginning in 2012. The first phase consisted of Aegis-radar equipped ships armed with the Standard Missile 3 Block IA. This first phase of the PAA provided capability against medium-range missiles. Phase two is being built right now and involves, among other things, the deployment of a variant of the Aegis system on land, Aegis Ashore, along with the more capable Standard Missile 3 Block IB missile. The fourth and final phase of the PAA, deployed around the end of this decade, envisioned yet a newer missile, the Standard Missile 3 Block IIB and robust sensors and battle management systems that would be capable of engaging ICBMs. The Aegis/Standard Missile combination will be supported by other missile defense capabilities including the venerable Patriot PAC-3, THAAD and the National Missile Defense.
There has been speculation of late that President Obama might be contemplating eliminating one or more phases of the PAA, particularly Phase IV, as a sop to Vladimir Putin and a means of enticing Moscow into a new round of strategic nuclear arms reductions. This would be both wrong strategically and bad politics. Given North Korea and Iran’s behavior, an American president will need more options than that provided by classical nuclear deterrence. The United States and its allies need the capability promised by a fully deployed PAA to neutralize the threat posed by long-range ballistic missiles in the hands of rogue states.