So far, 2016 is shaping up as a busy year for North Korea, and it's only February.
Less than a week into the New Year, Pyongyang conducted its fourth underground nuclear test. The DPRK government said the device was a fusion weapon--an H-bomb--but most experts dispute that claim.
And more recently (on 6 February), North Korea placed a small satellite into orbit, using a rocket that will probably serve as a test bed for improved ICBMs, capable of striking targets throughout the CONUS. Kim Jong un has already unveiled a long-range missile, designated the KN-08, which is probably capable of reaching the western United States. Current consensus in the intelligence community is that Pyongyang has not yet developed a nuclear device small enough to fit on the KN-08, but that development is just a matter of time.
The U.S. reaction? We'll be charitable and call it mixed, at best.
On the positive side, the Obama Administration is holding serious talks with Seoul about deployment of THAAD batteries in South Korea. Adding the high-altitude, long-range system to existing missile defenses will improve coverage against North Korea's expanding missile arsenal. Currently, Seoul relies on a mix of Patriot PAC-2 and PAC-3 batteries to defend against missile attacks. Previously, South Korea claimed that its lower-tier system was adequate for the task, but the recent nuclear test and rocket launch have forced President Park Geun-hye to reconsider.
But deploying THADD radars, launchers, support equipment and troops to the peninsula may not be as easy as you might think. China is adamantly opposed to the move, realizing that THAAD could also provide protection against its some of its missile systems from an operating location in South Korea. Beijing is also concerned the U.S. may market THAAD to both Seoul and Tokyo, creating an advanced, extended missile defense network that would impact the balance of power in northeast Asia.
There's also the matter of logistics. The Army has only five THAAD batteries currently in service (out of a planned total of seven). All are normally based at Fort Bliss, Texas, and at least one is reserved for training new crew members; additionally, one battery is now deployed to Guam, in response to the North Korean threat. That leaves only three batteries to cover other contingency tasking, including a deployment to South Korea. Operations are also constrained by planned THAAD purchases by the UAE and Oman. So, even if the U.S. wanted to build more, the contractor team must devote a portion of their resources to fulfilling that export contract.
Beyond the expected THAAD deployment, Washington's military reaction to recent events in Korea has been largely symbolic. The Obama Administration has touted the dispatch of other assets to the region, including the attack submarine USS North Carolina, and a B-52 bomber. The sub is in Korean waters this week, participating in three days of joint exercises. Next month, the aircraft carrier John Stennis will take part in another drill with South Korean forces, affirming our support for the Seoul government. As for the B-52, a single Stratofortress made a highly-publicized flight across South Korea in January, just days after the latest North Korean nuclear test. The sortie was aimed at reminding Pyongyang that we have multiple platforms capable of putting conventional weapons (and nukes) on targets in North Korea.
But all of these military moves are fleeting, at best. The Pentagon has just announced that four F-22 Raptors will deploy to Korea by 17 February, further upgrading allied air capabilities in the region. The USAF has maintained three F-16 squadrons on the peninsula for decades, and Seoul has spent billions for its own fleet of F-16s and more recently, the F-15K, a variant of the Strike Eagle customized for the ROKAF. The Air Force hasn't announced how long the Raptors will remain in Korea, or if they will actually operate from the peninsula. A small detachment of F-22s and support personnel have been deployed to Japan since last month; there is some speculation the four Raptors that appeared in Korean skies this week are actually operating from Yakota AB, Japan and not Osan or Kunsan AB in South Korea.
Compare that to our reaction almost 50 years ago, when North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and took the crew prisoner. In response, President Johnson mobilized over 14,000 Air Force and Navy reservists; the U.S. sent scores of aircraft to the region, along with a huge naval task force that (at one point) included five aircraft carriers. Recently-declassified documents revealed that LBJ considered a wide range of military options, including potential nuclear strikes against North Korea if tensions escalated into a full-scale war.
Obviously, we won't see a response like that again. For starters, the U.S. military is much smaller than it was in the late 1960s; we no longer have the additional air and naval assets that could be dispatched to Korea for an extended period. Executing a similar move today would have a crippling impact on operations and training around the globe; never mind that current assets (like the F-22) are far more capable than the fighters sent to the Far East during the Pueblo crisis.
This reality hasn't escaped notice in Pyongyang; Kim Jong un has ordered more rocket launches, assessing he has little to fear in terms of American military action. Indeed, conditions on the peninsula are likely to get worse, despite the periodic presence of the F-22 and other state-of-the-art weapons systems. Firepower is essential to deterrence, but so is persistence. That value is lacking in our current approach to North Korea, and we will almost certainly pay a price for its absence.