Earlier this month, I wrote a short op-ed for Newsweek Japan (issue cover to the left) on missiles and conflict Northeast Asia. I reprint that essay below in its English original.
My editor first wanted me to write something on North Korea’s latest tests. But everyone writes about that, and all the talk of missiles and missile defense up here got me thinking about the larger issue that drones, missiles, and other cheap air platforms increasingly look to me like the wave of the future.
Today’s (failed) North Korean missile test just reinforces the argument of this essay – that any future conflict out here will involve a lot more unmanned airpower than people think. So yes, the big US bases out here are important, and politicians will continue to extol ‘the troops’ in order to get re-elected. But swarming drones, missiles, robot planes, and so on, guided by space-based C2ISR, is probably a lot cheaper and effective. (Read this on how much unconventional airpower would be involved in a conflict with China, and this on ‘swarming.’) The full essay follows the jump.
In January and February of this year, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and a rocket. It has since made threats to attack the continental United States with nuclear weapons. In China, the People’s Liberation Army seeks to counter US naval power with ‘swarms’ of cheap missiles and drones. Large platforms like aircraft carriers or concentrated bases of American soldiers would be hard to defend against waves of cheap missiles and other UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). The Shinzo Abe government, realizing that its regional opponents are developing airpower projection, has pushed through legislation that allows Japan’s military to fight further from its shores.
This is the emerging shape of northeast Asia’s military competition. For decades, the region’s military balance was rooted in large, expensive, but ultimately stable deterrence. During the Cold War, all sides had big traditional forces. The Soviet Union, China, and North Korea deployed large land armies and armor. The US, South Korea, and Japan countered that quantitative advantage with qualitatively superior forces and technology. This was hugely expensive and man-power intensive. But it also kept the peace. While nuclear weapons and missiles were present, they were not a central part of regional strategy (as they were in the NATO-Warsaw Pact stand-off in Europe). Conventional deterrence largely worked.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Korean peninsula, probably the most concentrated militarized space on the planet. North Korea’s military was enormous but conventional. Until a decade or so ago, a second Korean war would have looked much like the first one – a gargantuan clash of conventional militaries in large, World War II-style battles, complemented by heavy US airpower. Weight, size, and sheer volume of metal and munitions would be decisive.
But it is also in Korea where this successful balance is most obviously eroding. North Korean conventional power is increasingly obsolete; the Korean People’s Army simply cannot keep up with major qualitative improvements in allied (i.e., US and South Korean) capabilities. Nuclear weapons are intended to close that gap, and, as much as we dislike admitting it, North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state. Its four nuclear tests suggest it now has a reliably functional warhead. Its most recent test included (we think) a fusion-boosting technology which suggests Pyongyang is reaching for a qualitatively more powerful hydrogen bomb next. Its parallel missile tests, masquerading as a ‘space program,’ are to provide a delivery platform for those warheads. (North Korea’s air force would not last long enough against the allies to drop a bomb; missiles are a necessity.) The next step is to miniaturize a warhead enough to marry it to a missile, and then improve guidance tracking enough to bring a missile to its target. But given how far North Korea has come despite sanctions, it seems likely it will develop these capabilities. Shortly it should be able to strike regional capitals, and perhaps in a decade, the US mainland.
The ‘missilization’ of regional security portends a whole new area of defense planning and expense. Conventional deterrence will, of course, remain; US Forces Korea and Japan will stay in place. But because North Korea (and China) know they will not prevail against such forces, the deployment of cheap, unmanned airpower is an attractive alternative. Unfortunately for the US, Japan, and South Korea especially, defense against missiles and ‘swarms’ of cheap UAVs is significantly more expensive than those air weapons themselves. Just one US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense battery costs nearly 800 million USD or roughly 2% of South Korean defense spending. Once North Korea reaches economies of scale in its missile and nuclear production, the costs of this ‘offense-defense balance’ will explode. Expert predictions suggest that within a decade, North Korea could produce more than 10 nuclear weapons a year. Defending against that will become prohibitively expensive.
Worse, missile defense has had mixed results in the field, and THAAD has never been used in combat. Missile defense is often likened to hitting a bullet with another bullet, an obviously difficult technical challenge. Further, missile defense must succeed every time to protect a city or aircraft carrier against an inbound projectile. But only one of an attacker’s missiles needs to get through to do major damage. Israel’s Iron Dome system has effectively blocked projectiles fired from the Palestinian territories, and the US Patriot missile defense system has successfully defended US forces against short range missiles in the past. But there is no record of a heavy rocket, of the type North Korea is developing, being shot down by a missile defense system. Nor could such missile defense systems absorb ‘swarms’ of hundred or even thousands of Chinese missiles, rockets, drones, and so on used against US and Japanese ships or bases in the event of major regional conflict.
This is the future arms race of northeast Asia: a struggle to defend against cheap, massed, possibly nuclearized, airpower. My concern is that at some point, defensive strategies will become so expensive, yet still not completely effective, that pre-emption, especially against North Korean launch sites, will become an attractive option.