Elevating Deterrence on the Korean Peninsula

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As scripted, President Donald Trump’s five-nation Asian tour underscores the longstanding U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.  Yet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un may seek to insinuate his way into the program through fresh provocations.  Alliance unity and peace itself could come under fire via a Pyongyang-manufactured crisis. 

Anticipating Pyongyang’s potential mischief, the Trump administration already arranged for three aircraft carrier strike groups to be in the region throughout the longest visit to Asia by any American president in more than 25 years.  But it should take one more defensive move that would visibly demonstrate revolve, enhance deterrence, and boost early warning of any missile launch or nuclear test.

Two MQ-9 Reaper drones equipped with the ability to track North Korea’s missiles, currently sitting at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Marshall Islands, could be deployed northward to Japan or South Korea, where they might augment the allied strategy of deterrence, pressure, and diplomacy.

Even as pressure builds, the 33-year-old Kim is not taking the United States and its allies seriously enough.  This July Kim tested two Hwasong-14 missiles capable of hitting Alaska and Hawaii.  Far from being prepared to walk back, or even pause, the pursuit of a nuclear-armed, intercontinental ballistic missile capability, Kim appears determined to acquire and deploy these weapons and, in the process, risk missteps that trigger lethal conflict.

As part of a comprehensive strategy, the administration should consider near-term measures to strengthen ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities around the Peninsula.  Specifically, adding boost-phase intercept (BPI) technology could help prevent or at least limit the damage of potential North Korean miscalculation, reassure allies and avoid strategic decoupling, and put the United States in a stronger rather than a weaker political, military, and intelligence posture.

Traditional missile defense systems were designed for cold war scenarios involving other major powers and as a result have been designed to intercept ballistic missiles only at a mid-course or last-ditch, terminal phase.  

This restrictive approach to BMD means that the security of the United States and its allies incur extra risk.  As the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has long realized, our ground-based radars are limited by the curvature of the earth and only an airborne sensor can track a missile from the moment of a launch.

Anticipating a world in which regional states such as Iran and North Korea used newly acquired weapons as instruments of blackmail, coercion, and hybrid warfare, MDA has been working to address America’s lack of boost-phase intercept capabilities within a larger global BMD system. 

BPI is the most effective way to ensure very high probability to kill since a boosting missile provides a relatively low and brightly illuminated target to track and shoot.  Even without an immediate BPI capability, the same technology (an MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV with boost-phase tracking sensors) can provide significant psychological, political, and intelligence dividends.

Two MQ-9 UAVs are in Kwajalein for a BMD exercise that successfully ended last week. They need to be airlifted on a C-17 into the Northeast Asian theater rather than sent home packing.  Their presence in either Japan or South Korea would represent an existential deterrent, the likes of which North Korea might take more seriously than less overt capabilities.

While there are other, less visible defenses in theater, publicly deploying MQ-9 UAVs forward to Japan or South Korea offers both technical and political-psychological benefits.

An airborne system is the only way to get early three-dimensional tracking data at a boost phase.  Surface systems cannot get 3-D tracking data until much later, as indicated above.  Furthermore, satellites only provide 2-D tracking and cannot tell whether a missile is in a lofted, normal, or suppressed trajectory.  Moreover, this system would provide significant electronic, signals, and geospatial intelligence (known as ELINT, SIGINT, and GEOINT).

Furthermore, if necessary, airborne tracking data will enable kinetic engagement from existing sea- and land-based systems such as Aegis and THAAD before those systems could track an ICBM.  This early engagement, executed by Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications, is known as ‘Launch on Remote.’

Within two years, moreover, a BPI system could be upgraded to an airborne BPI system within by integrating a missile that could be carried on an MQ-9.  This would eliminate the need for positioning expensive surface systems directly in harm’s way.

Well short of ever being used, however, an armed MQ-9 would serve as a flying PSYOP, a powerful intelligence gathering platform that can see deep into North Korea, and pose as a potential decapitation platform should a preemptive strike ever be necessary.  

At a minimum, moving the capabilities quietly to the north could put the U.S. administration in the position of having credible options for boosting deterrence should, as seems likely, Kim conduct further provocations, including even a hydrogen bomb atmospheric test while the President is in the region.

Dr. Patrick Cronin directs the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and previously directed the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.  Dr. David Asher, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at CNAS, served as special coordinator of the State Department’s North Korea Working Group, co-chair of the North Korea Activities Group policy coordinating committee for the National Security Council, and U.S. delegation advisor to the Six Party Talks.

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