Missiles, Missiles, Missiles: The Test, Broad and Sanger on Missile Defense and Lewis on Crisis Stability

March 10, 2017 7:00 AM
An earlier version of this post contained an error on the source of the engines used in the KN-11. This version has also benefitted from conversations on the possible routes to an ICBM capability, debates about the Musudan and KN-08 and on crisis stability. Thanks to members of the invisible college.


Headlines have been dominated by North Korea’s test of four missiles last weekend, with three of them landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. But equally significant is a piece of investigative journalism by William Broad and David Sanger (here and here). The two New York Times journalists have pieced together a story that was—as they put it—“hiding in plain sight”: that the US already has at least some capabilities to pre-empt North Korean launches without use of traditional interceptors, that it might have already used that capability, and that is seeking more. Not everything in these stories about the North Korean missile program was right. But the defensive capabilities are a possible game-changer.

Given that the two articles are must-read, they can be summarized briefly:

  • In the very first year of the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton underscored the risks associated with North Korean progress using a Soviet R-27 SLBM design.
  • Disaffected with the cost and test results of traditional ballistic missile defense systems, President Obama authorized further research on so-called “left-of-launch” options in 2014. A short description by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance provides the gist: “The strategy is based on a preemptive strike with new non kinetic technologies, such as electromagnetic propagation, cyber as well as offensive force to defeat nuclear ballistic missile threats before they are launched, known as 'left of launch.' The strategy is to attack by electronic embedment or through the electronic radar signatures of the threat’s command and control systems and the targeting systems of the threatening ballistic missiles.”
  • The initiation of the program was buried under more public coverage of the placement of additional interceptors in California and Alaska following the third nuclear test in February 2013. But chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey effectively announced the program at the December 2013 rollout of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense: Vision 2020. At public forums—including this one at CSIS—officials, outside experts and even industry representatives openly discussed the option as did a variety of Congressional testimony linked in the articles.
  • What is unclear is the extent to which the program has already contributed to the string of North Korean testing failures we have seen over the last several years. For obvious reasons, such information is closely guarded and there are plenty of things that can go wrong without outside interference; the significance of the capability may be exaggerated (see Hayes and Shiller at NKPro). But pursuing the capability more aggressively is an option and it is hard to imagine that the North Koreans have not considered the possibility (in one misstep, there is a suggestion that the recent executions at the Ministry of State Security might be linked to this issue, which is highly unlikely).
  • All of these developments play into the Trump administration’s purported “review” of North Korea policy, in which the re-introduction of nuclear weapons into South Korea was apparently considered.

So why is this development significant? The answers have to do with long-standing debates about the legitimacy of pre-emption, first- and second-strike capabilities and crisis stability. If Broad and Sanger are right, it suggests that the United States has already undertaken what amount to pre-emptive strikes against North Korea. In a pretty standard statement issued in advance of the US-ROK joint exercise by the KPA General Staff, the military signaled that “should the U.S. imperialists and the south Korean puppet forces fire even a single shell into the waters where the sovereignty of our Republic is exercised, the KPA will immediately launch its merciless military counter-actions.” Does a left-of-launch strike of a missile on the launch-pad count? It is clear that these kinds of pre-emptive capabilities can lead to hair-trigger “use them or lose them” calculations, thus undermining crisis stability. In an important piece in Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Lewis outlines the problems that arise when pre-emptive approach confronts pre-emptive approach.

Yet from a political perspective, the North Korean launch only serves to make the case for missile defense on the part of the US, Japan and Korea. Not only did South Korea’s interim president Hwang immediately call for the acceleration of THAAD deployment, deepening the controversy with Beijing over the issue. The test—an example of how attacks or responses are likely to involve multiple launches simultaneously—immediately raised doubts about Japanese missile-defense capabilities as well (Motoko Roh provides an introduction at the Times). The KCNA even touted the exercise as the product of a group tasked with targeting Japan.

All of these challenges land on Trump’s desk, and some interesting political economy issues are already in play. Needless to say, defenders of more standard interceptors are dubious that left-of-launch capabilities are available or even desirable; in the short write-up by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance cited above, their skepticism includes mention of the pre-emption problem, which standard interceptors don’t face.

Which brings me finally to what was actually launched. We are still waiting on technical analysis of the trajectories, but the most likely answer is that these were extended-range SCUDs. The prominent backstory in most news coverage was nonetheless North Korea’s march toward the development of a three-stage ICBM, the KN-08, or some modification of “satellite launch vehicles.” You could almost hear the disappointment that these were not ICBMs.

ICBM’s are not the only challenge that the US faces on the peninsula, however, although they are certainly the most headline-worthy in the US. North Koreans have also been marching forward with other intermediate-range missile designs that do not have to be tested as extensively because they may have been developed elsewhere in whole or in part. Most notable in this regard are the solid-fueled KN-11 and modifications of the Soviet-era RN-27 design that have or could work their way into the Musudan and the KN-08.

  • The missile has proven capability to carry a 1500 kilogram warhead 450 kilometers or a 1000 kilogram warhead 600 kilometers or more. This is adequate to deliver first-generation nuclear weapons, but also underlines that the challenges at this stage are primarily regional: holding Japan as well as South Korea hostage.
  • The rocket is solid-fueled, suggesting significant technological advance and increased capabilities, including for rapid land-based launch.
  • If the North Koreans manage to develop an SLBM version of the KN-11, which they are clearly trying to do, it undermines the utility of THAAD systems that are oriented toward land-based threats. Of course, the US and South Korea have not-insignificant anti-submarine warfare capabilities. But there is a lot of ocean out there and we would need a lot more capability than a single THAAD battery to manage an SLBM challenge, which in theory can effectively pop up anywhere.
  • The fact that the North Koreans have been able to develop this missile almost certainly demonstrates a point we make repeatedly on this blog: that the sanctions regime is leaky and desperately needs to be fixed; we will be focusing on this issue in more detail later when we review the new Panel of Experts report.

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