Sunday, June 18, 2006

Watch the East

The AP headline says it all: "North Korea Appears Close to Long-Range Missile Test." Sometime in the coming days--perhaps in a few hours--Pyongyang will launch a Taepodong-2 missile from a test facility on its eastern coast. The test of the Taepodong-2 (or TD-2, as it's known in the spook world) will create a major international incident, the most serious since the 1998 launch of its predecessor, the TD-1.

During that event, the TD-1 overflew Japan before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean east of Honshu. Tokyo sternly opposed that launch, and indicates it will lodge an even more vigorous protest in response to a TD-2 test shot. Unfortunately, diplomatic notes mean nothing to Kim Jong-il, so the launch will proceed as planned. At last report, one of the missile's stages was reportedly being fueled, suggesting that launch preparations were in the final stages.

However, concerns about the expected TD-2 test extend well beyond Tokyo's diplomatic sensibilities. The upper portion of the three-stage missile may well land outside North Korean borders, coming down (perhaps) on one of Japan's northern islands, or in Russian or Chinese territory. That development would infuriate the Japanese even more, and Moscow or Beijing wouldn't be very happy, either.

From an American perspective, the test launch poses a direct challenge, both militarily and diplomatically. With the six-party talks stalled, Pyongyang will use the event to remind the U.S. (and its partners), that North Korea cannot be ignored. Launch of the TD-2 would likely be followed by a list of demands for Pyongyang, "conditions" for a resumption of talks. Failure to meet those requirements could mean more missile tests, growing regional tensions, and liberal cries for direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea, in hopes of ending the crisis. Fortunately, President Bush pays as much attention to advice from The New York Times editorial page as Kim Jong-il does to Japanese diplomatic notes.

But the prospective TD-2 test creates some real dilemmas for the Bush Administration. If the missile is a three-stage version--and it's not used for a space launch, as some have speculated--the TD-2's RV vehicle could splash down in the vicinity of Hawaii, a daring provocation from Pyongyang. Not even at the height of the Cold War did the U.S. or the Soviet Union arrange for their simulated RVs to land within a few hundred miles of their adversary's shoreline. Parking an RV near Hawaii would remind the U.S. that Pyongyang is now capable of targeting American territory, with weapons of mass destruction.

And that creates another challenge for the White House. The U.S. now has a limited number of anti-missile interceptors on alert in Alaska, deployed specifically for the North Korean threat. Would the United States use those weapons to send its own message to Pyongyang, by knocking down the TD-2? That scenario alone carries significant risks; shooting down the missile could be interpreted as an act of war; a "miss" would be a devastating setback for U.S. BMD efforts. There is also the possibility that NK might retaliate by attempting to intercept (and shoot down) a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan.

What will happen in the hours that follow? Almost anything, and virtually all scenarios are problematic for the U.S. In any event, keep an eye on the east, and brace for the diplomatic and military crisis that is almost certain to follow.


John (Useful Fools) said...

Spook... I don't think that ABM systems deployed in Alaska and California could target RV's headed for Hawaii.

An interesting question is whether the Aegis platforms now (or soon?) operating off of the NK coast could take it out, in boost stage, with SM-3's. Those systems are designed for ABM use, but I don't know if they are designed for boost phase.

On the other hand, if they aren't, why are four of the platforms supposedly permanently stationed off the NK coast?

Wanderlust said...

spook, as much as I'd love to see an SM-2 challenge, all consequences to such an action point to SERIOUS escalation of tensions with NK, perhaps followed by Iran.

Also, if *I* were the BMDO senior project manager, I'd be pissing my britches at the prospect of a system failure with the whole world watching.

To my knowledge, current ABM systems are "deployed" in the sense that they are sited in Alaska, but I can't recall BMDO running a serious "full-up" operational test on that system. I admit in advance that I could be wrong on this fact.

However, an operational SM-2 intercept would send a message around the world much louder than its actual explosion: BMD is a reality, and existing ICBMs are now obsolete (perhaps excepting the SS-N-30, if that system is really deployed, which I don't think it is). That message would freak out Dear Leader and make him spaz all over the Peninsula - again, bad escalation.

Recall that the Soviets privately pissed themselves in 1962 when the USN conducted a "full-up" Posiedon shot, with a live warhead. This test was the only operational SLBM test ever conducted by the superpowers, and proved that all systems worked perfectly.

Of course, personally, I'd love to see NK get put in its place with an SM-2 intercept...sigh.

John said...

If the AEGIS based platform works, then it should be used and we should be prepared for any 'spazzing' by NK. My understanding is that we do have SM-2 and SM-3 systems at sea that can intercept during the boost phase. We developed these systems largely due to the NK threat. If NK sends a missile on a trajectory that threatens the US or its allies (Japan in this case) we have no reason not to try to knock it down. What if this is an 'out of the blue' attack and it has a live warhead. Not likely, but we need to err on the side of caution.

Mrs. Davis said...

The Japanese also have Aegis/SM3 systems. It may not be our call.