The death of Kim Jong Il has triggered the beginning of what may be a protracted filial succession crisis in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Were it not for that country’s possession of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles the death of one petty dictator and the prospective rise of another would hold little interest for the world. Unfortunately what happens in the ruling circles of the North Korean regime in Pyongyang may matter a great deal. What makes the situation even more unpleasant as well as unpredictable is the opacity of decision making in Pyongyang.
What we do know is that North Korea is not beyond using military means to manage both its internal and foreign policies. Actually, it seems to make a fetish of the one-off military demonstrations and attacks in response to shaky political circumstances at home or an unsatisfactory international environment. There was the deliberate sinking of the South Korean patrol craft in March, 2010. This was followed by the shelling of a South Korean island in November of the same year.
So it should not come as a surprise that the DPRK launched a short-range ballistic missile off its east coast on the same day that it announced Kim’s death. Perhaps this was a planned exercise, one of many the North has conducted in recent years. Perhaps, someone didn’t get the word to stand down given the Dear Leader’s demise. However, the decision could have been made to go ahead with the launch precisely because of the situation in the capital. In view of its history, Pyongyang could have decided that this was precisely the time to start launching missiles as a warning to other nations.
What makes Pyongyang’s proclivity towards violent outbursts all the more disconcerting is the potential for this to be the waning days of the regime. Victor Cha, a noted expert on the DPRK writes in today’sNew York Times that “North Korea as we know it is over.” It is only a matter of time before the regime collapses under the burden of sixty-six years of totalitarianism coupled to a succession crisis. There is a not inconsiderable chance that one or another faction within the leadership could seek to create a military crisis with South Korea or even the United States in order to further its domestic political interests.
This brings me to the issue of theater missile defenses. Since 2009, the Obama Administration has been pursuing a strategy for theater missile defenses called the Phased Adaptive Architecture (PAA). The central idea of the PAA is to build ever more capable missile defenses in a series of steps or phases beginning this year and leaping ahead every couple of years into the early 2020s. Ultimately, the PAA will provide a highly capable defense against ballistic missiles of medium to intercontinental ranges. A few weeks ago, the White House announced the deployment of the first missile-defense capable ship, the USS Monterey, to European waters. The Monterey is equipped with the upgraded Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) version 3.6.1 and the new Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) Block IA. Later phases will see the acquisition of more capable sensors and interceptors — the SM -3 Blocks IB, IIA and IIB — as well as the deployment of the Aegis system on land, called Aegis Ashore.
One of the advantages of making the Aegis BMDS and SM-3 the centerpieces of the PAA is the system’s inherent mobility. The current U.S. plan is to grow the number of BMD-capable ships from 23 at the end of fiscal year 2011 to no fewer than 41 at the end of fiscal year 2016 with the number of interceptors increasing from 111 to at least 341 over the same period. In addition, a number of U.S. allies, including both Japan and South Korea, operate Aegis-equipped ships, some with Standard Missile capability. Japan has conducted successful intercepts of ballistic targets using the SM-3 IA and is co-developing with the U.S. the advanced SM-3 Block IIA.
As recent events have demonstrated, the danger to U.S. allies, friends and forces abroad from ballistic missile-armed states such as North Korea or Iran can change in ways that are difficult to anticipate. This reality makes it all the more important that the U.S. continue to move forward aggressively to develop and deploy advanced missile defenses. In addition, Congress and the administration should work together to ensure the most rapid possible conversion of Aegis ships to the missile defense configuration and the procurement of as many of the near-term SM-3 variants, the IA and IB, as can be built. Robust theater missile defenses are needed urgently both for Europe and Northeast Asia.
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