Aggressors always hope that the conventional wars they start will be swift and decisive. Consider Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia, Japan’s offensive against the United States and Great Britain, North Korea invading South Korea, the Arab states versus Israel in 1967 and 1973, Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran, Argentina and the Falklands, and Russia’s seizure of Crimea. In each of these instances the strategy was the same: conduct a short, sharp military offensive designed to defeat opposing military forces, seize key objectives and create a superior position before the victim(s) can effectively respond.
Historically, such aggressive wars often begin with surprise attacks on critical military targets intended to degrade defenses and paralyze responsive actions. Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines were designed to eliminate U.S. naval and air forces in the theater, paving the way for Tokyo’s almost unopposed offensive in the Western Pacific.
Deterring aggression requires, at a minimum, creating uncertainty in the mind of the aggressor state that it can win quickly, if at all. Beyond this, the defender also must convince the would-be aggressor that he faces the certainty of suffering unacceptable costs, if not military defeat. This was the approach the U.S. and its allies took with respect to deterring the Soviet Union. Over decades, the West continually upgraded and shaped its conventional and nuclear forces so as to make it clear to Moscow that it couldn’t achieve a rapid conventional victory nor a disarming nuclear first strike.
The essential elements of a deterrence strategy remain the same in the 21st Century. What has changed are the capabilities available both to the prospective aggressors in their efforts to develop a first strike advantage and the nations seeking to deter them.
Nowhere are the challenges associated with deterring a prospective aggressor clearer than on the Korean peninsula. The regime in Pyongyang knows better than most the consequences of failing to achieve its offensive objectives rapidly and decisively. It has spent the 60-plus-years since the 1953 armistice developing and deploying capabilities expressly directed at ensuring, should war with its neighbor to the south come again, it can execute a decisive first strike. Some 60 percent of North Korea’s Army is deployed within easy striking distance of South Korea’s capitol, Seoul, along with approximately 13,000 pieces of artillery and rocket launchers. Pyongyang also has a 100,000-man-strong Special Operations Corps that could flood the South for the purpose of paralyzing communications and movement.
The centerpiece of North Korea’s surprise attack capability is its growing inventory of ballistic missiles. Pyongyang has some 600 short-range ballistic missiles that could reach from inside the North to the tip of the Korean peninsula. In addition, it possesses nearly 200 medium-range Rodong missiles with a range of up to 1,500 kilometers. The North Korean military knows that it must neutralize South Korean and American advantages in airpower, precision weapons, intelligence and command and control if it is to win a new war on the peninsula. Armed with conventional and chemical warheads, this force could inflict a potentially devastating attack on South Korean targets, as well as strike Japanese and U.S. bases in the Western Pacific.
Lest we forget, North Korea is also a nuclear power with as many as a dozen weapons in its inventory. It is believed to be working on warheads small enough to be carried on a ballistic missile. In recent testimony to Congress on worldwide threats to U.S. security, the Director of National Intelligence warned that North Korea was seeking to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08, capable of reaching the U.S.
Deterring North Korea means, first and foremost, denying it the effective use of its growing arsenal of ballistic missiles. To do so requires a mix of active defenses and passive measures such as hardening, camouflage, dispersal and redundancy. Missile defenses, particularly if employed preferentially to provide a high level of protection for a subset of all critical targets, can present an almost insoluble problem to the attacker.
The most effective missile defense works in layers, allowing for multiple shots against incoming missiles. Currently, South Korea and U.S. forces on the peninsula rely on the Patriot air and missile defense system for primary protection against both aircraft and ballistic missile threats. This allows only for a single shot against an incoming target. To get two shots would require a different interceptor, either the Aegis ballistic missile defense currently operated by the U.S. and Japanese navies or the land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
Quite sensibly, in view of the growing threat, the U.S. wants to deploy a THAAD battery to South Korea. This has led to complaints from China, which is not surprising since it too is building up a massive arsenal of ballistic missiles and doesn’t want to see missile defense proliferate in Asia. A system such as THAAD in South Korea could only target missiles launched against that nation or Japan. If attacked by North Korea or even China, South Korea — and by extension U.S. forces deployed there — has the right and must have the means to defend itself. The South Korean government should approve the deployment of THAAD to the peninsula.
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