Whatever strategy the Obama administration thinks it implemented to prevent North Korea from achieving a nuclear missile capability, it failed. When the two Presidential nominees take the stage for the second debate on Sunday, North Korea will be celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its first nuclear test. Nobody should be surprised if it tests another nuclear weapon or missile(s) as part of its celebration. The debate moderator should pressure Hillary Clinton to explain the degree to which North Korea poses a threat to the United States, and how she and President Obama failed to thwart it. The American people deserve to know what Hillary Clinton has learned, if anything, and what she would do differently if she becomes President. And, of course, Donald Trump should outline the seriousness of the threat with greater detail than he has in the past, note how the Clinton-Obama policies have failed to sufficiently protect the American people, and he should give voters an idea of how he would do handle North Korea. On this, Hillary Clinton has a much harder case to make than Donald Trump.
North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon five times, four of them while President Obama has been in office. The most recent one occurred on the heels of a salvo missile test, more evidence that Pyongyang is mastering the ability to perform complex missile attacks. Just before that, it launched a submarine ballistic missile. Some in the intelligence community believe Pyongyang has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead so that it could be fitted atop a missile. The previous Northern Command Commander, Admiral Gortney, testified before Congress that evidence via modeling provided him with enough information to assess that the North likely does have the capability (however unreliable) and to plan accordingly. The tempo of nuclear and missile tests is surely increasing, and with it, the confidence the Hermit State has its own capabilities, and in the belief that nothing will be done to stop it from obtaining a reliable nuclear missile arsenal.
President Obama has essentially punted the North Korean nuclear crisis to the next President. Proving once again that diplomacy is meaningless if it does not actually achieve ends that further actual U.S. national security objectives, the Obama administration worked with the United Nations Security Council to craft the “most biting sanctions” against North Korea to date, but never got real cooperation from China on enforcement. North Korea relies on China for food, energy, and more than seventy percent of its trade. The PRC has the power to force North Korea to its knees, but it chooses not to.
If the next President doesn’t possess the determination and wisdom necessary to get China on board with meaningful sanctions, the only other options before us are very bad ones that include: disrupting or destroying North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, working in a variety of ways to undermine the regime and hasten its collapse (as if this one will go over more smoothly with China), or, (arguably the worst option) brace for and learn to deal with a North Korea that can credibly threaten the U.S. homeland and our allies with a nuclear ballistic missile. After the last nuclear test President Obama said “the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state...” Putting aside the awkward fact that he has done little to prevent this reality, President Obama’s nominal refusal to accept a nuclear North Korea is the right position and the next President should maintain this U.S. policy, only, he or she should mean it.
No matter the strategic objectives, either to compel the current North Korean regime to relinquish its program or to undermine it and work toward Korean unification, or, the best option: doing the former in the near term while working toward the latter in the long-term, the next several years will be tumultuous. In addition to its long-range missile capability, the totalitarian regime has long possessed tactical artillery rockets and short and medium range ballistic missiles that pose a direct and immediate threat to South Korea, where 28,000 U.S. troops provide necessary assurance. Its intermediate range missiles can reach Japan, where 49,000 U.S. troops are also providing assurance. Therefore, an essential component of the next President’s strategy to respond to North Korea must be for the United States, together with Japan and South Korea, to closely cooperate to expand missile defense operations in the region, and for the United States to greatly enhance homeland missile defense.
In June of 2016 Japan, South Korea, and the United States conducted their first ever joint ballistic missile defense exercise. Japan and South Korea have historically had minimal military cooperation since World War II, but their shared interests, alliances, and enemies, are driving them to combine efforts. Their missile defense cooperation is a positive development and one the United States must continue to cultivate in the coming years. Just as the common goals and principles of NATO countries have been a bulwark against Russian aggression, so too must the United States work toward a trilateral alliance to better share the security burden and maintain peace in the Asia-Pacific. A missile defense architecture, complementing the U.S. nuclear guarantees, should be the backbone of the alliance. (It is worth noting that unlike most NATO allies that falls short of their financial commitments to the alliance, South Korea and Japan make substantial and serious contributions in support of the American presence in their respective countries.)
The United States is scheduled to deploy a short-range missile defense system called THAAD to South Korea by the end of 2017. China continues to object to the deployment, claiming it would weaken its own deterrent capabilities. The United States should stop trying to “persuade” China that the system is not meant to weaken China’s nuclear deterrent. Instead the United States should unapologetically insist it will deploy defensive capabilities where it deems appropriate based on the threat, and the most pressing threat is from North Korea. But “the end of 2017” is too far away. The next President should direct its immediate deployment. This should be just a start. One battery will be an improvement, but South Korea will need more than that. The United States as only produced seven THAAD batteries, but in light of the pressing missile threats, that won’t suffice.
This is also true of BMD-capable Aegis ships. Japan was the first country to purchase MDA developed missile defense systems when it upgraded its KONGO Class Destroyers with the U.S. Aegis BMD operational capability, armed with SM-3 Block IA missiles. The SM-3 Cooperative Development Program is the joint U.S.-Japan development of the SM-3 Block IIA, which will have the ability to intercept longer-range ballistic missiles, and is scheduled for deployment in 2018. In addition to looking for opportunities to expand U.S.-Japan missile defense cooperation, the U.S. Navy must increase the number of interceptors available to the 16 Aegis BMD-capable ships in the Pacific theater.
Last, but most importantly, the United States must expand missile defense at home. The United States currently has 30-plus ground-based interceptors (GBIs), located in Alaska and California. It will expand the number of interceptors to 44 by the end of 2017. Still, the Obama administration cut the homeland defense system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system by half in President Obama’s first defense bill submission. The United States must increase the number of GBIs deployed in the United States, including moving forward with a third intercept site, whether that means developing and deploying transportable interceptors or another fixed site, and it must also invest in more test targets, upgrade the aging boosters, and invest in improvements to the system like the replacement kill vehicle-- the component of the interceptor that collides with the enemy missile.
The ability to see enemy missile launches is also a necessary requirement for effectively defending against them. The best sensors the United States possesses are the ones located in space. Space-based sensors in support of the BMD mission have taken a back seat due to cost, and a political aversion to “weaponinzing space.” But space has long been weaponized by countries like China, and space sensors’ improvement to the overall BMDS is worth the cost. The United States must prioritize space-based sensors and take steps to deploy interceptors from space as well. Space is the optimal location to place interceptors to destroy enemy missiles while they are still boosting, and before they release decoys and countermeasures to evade missile defense systems. Space-based interceptors will not replace the complex and complementary web of land and seas based defensive systems, but they will certainly ease the pressure on those systems, and provide a far more robust capability.
All of these missile defense improvements, necessary in the near term due to the increasing nuclear missile threat from North Korea, will require the next President to place a much greater emphasis on the role of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The Obama administration recommends the MDA budget hover around $7.5 billion annually in the years to come. Compare this to the last Bush MDA budget projection, which was $9.8 for FY13. Given the threat development, the next administration’s MDA budget must start at much higher figures, and to meet current combatant commander’s requirements, it means roughly doubling current annual projections. Even if the next President directed this level of funding increases for missile defense, it would account for just over 2% of today’s Pentagon budget. This is money well spent. It would significantly contribute to dissuading North Korea from launching a missile at the United States or our allies, and, in what is sure to be a turbulent future with North Korea, it will protect innocent lives should deterrence fail.
Rebeccah L. Heinrichs is a fellow at Hudson Institute where she provides research and analysis on a range of security issues and specializes in missile defense and nuclear deterrence policy.