Jan. 28, 2013 – SINGAPORE – The United States and its allies are in the midst of a major expansion of missile defenses in East Asia and the western Pacific. The planned network is designed to detect the launch of a ballistic missile, track the warhead as it arcs high above the earth, and shoot it down with an interceptor rocket before it can strike its target.
The U.S. says that the evolving missile defense system is primarily aimed at North Korea, which recently defied a United Nations Security Council ban by testing a long-range missile.
U.S. and South Korean analysis of the latest launch suggests that with further development and testing the missile will be able to reach the continental U.S. within the next few years.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Jan. 17 that he was increasingly worried about the long-range missile the North tested last month. He said it reached as far as the Philippines and could lob a warhead much further. However, there is no evidence that North Korea has built a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on the missile.
Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, has described the launch as “illegal.” With Australia taking its seat on the United Nations Security Council, Carr and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, agreed to work together on an international response to the North Korean launch when they met in Sydney earlier this month.
China and Russia joined the condemnation of the North Korean missile launch. But they strongly oppose the U.S.-led ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, which is part of the Obama administration’s move to shift military resources to the Asia-Pacific region to better protect U.S. interests, allies and friendly nations.
Australia signed a BMD Framework memorandum of understanding with the U.S. in 2004. U.S. officials have noted that Australia’s Air Warfare Destroyer uses the Aegis Combat System and that could be upgraded in future to provide a missile defense capability.
Beijing and Moscow say that if the U.S.-led sea and land-based missile interception system develops as planned, it could degrade if not completely neutralize the mainstay of their existing strategic nuclear weapon force — intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from land and from submarines at sea.
China is “greatly concerned” about the enhanced development of the U.S.-led BMD program, especially the recent increased deployment of the system in the Asia-Pacific area, says Gu Guoliang, director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies at the Institute of American Studies in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“This certainly has implications for the credibility of China’s limited number of nuclear weapons,” he wrote Jan. 14. “If the United States continues its development of the BMD program, China will have to take measures to secure the credibility of its nuclear second-strike capability.”
Most Asian and Western analysts believe that China has between 240 to 400 nuclear warheads, but only about 140 ICBMs (missiles with a range of more than 5,500 kilometers) to carry the warheads. If this estimate of China’s nuclear arsenal is accurate, it is far smaller than the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia.
Both China and Russia are building new weapons that they say will counter the U.S. BMD network if it proves effective and develops global reach by 2020. They want to ensure that enough of their nuclear-armed missiles would survive a U.S. attack to be able to launch a devastating counterattack, or second strike.
In China’s case, this includes developing a new ICBM, the DF-41, which can be launched at short-notice from mobile and hard-to-detect road or rail platforms. The DF-41 has an estimated range of between 12,000 and 15,000 km and be able to carry up to 10 separate nuclear warheads, each capable of striking different targets. This would complicate the task of any BMD system set up to block ICBMs.
The U.S. is expanding missile defense cooperation with two allies in Northeast Asia — Japan and South Korea — and may bring the Philippines into the network. The U.S. and Japan said in September that they had agreed to deploy another powerful early-warning missile defense radar, probably in southern Japan, to add to the capability of a similar X-Band radar stationed in the north of Japan since 2006.
On Jan. 15, Japan’s Cabinet approved a request from the Defense Ministry for an extra $681 million to upgrade its missile defense system to “cope with a changing security environment.” The ministry cited North Korea’s missile development and growing activity in the seas and airspace around Japan’s territory.
This was taken to mean China, which is at loggerheads with Japan over ownership of a group of islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing.
U.S. officials have also been evaluating sites in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, for a third X-Band radar to create an arc that would allow America and its regional allies to more accurately track any ballistic missile launches from North Korea and from parts of China. The radars could be networked with mobile missile interceptors deployed on U.S. and Japanese Aegis-equipped warships at sea and with land-based interceptors in the region.
The Aegis system, named after the mythological shield that defended the ancient Greek god Zeus, ties together space-based and other sensors, computers, displays, launchers and weapons.
A total of 27 Aegis warships are equipped for BMD and more are being built. Twenty three are in the U.S. Navy and four in Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. They are armed with Standard Missile-3 1A interceptors that the U.S. manufacturer, Raytheon Company, says offer initial capability against ballistic missiles with ranges up to 5,500 km.
Two improved versions of the Standard Missile are under development. The most advanced of the two is being codeveloped with a Japanese company and is scheduled for service by 2018. Raytheon says that a fourth version of the interceptor missile will provide “robust capability” against both intermediate-range ballistic missiles (3,000 to 5,500 km) and ICBMs. It says this interceptor is in the concept stage but is due to become operational by 2020.
The U.S. is deploying similar phased- array BMD systems in Europe and the Middle East, which it says are designed to counter Iranian missiles.
In response, Russia says it will build more powerful missiles and may resume production of the nuclear missile trains built by the former Soviet Union in the Cold War and dubbed the “vengeance weapon.”
A missile train looks like a standard train and runs on public rails. But its disguised carriages and cargo containers could launch several missiles within three minutes, each carrying up to 10 separate warheads with ranges of 10,000 km.
Russia’s Defense Ministry also said last month that it will start building hypersonic interceptor missiles in the next few years for its own expanded BMD system.
A 2010 Pentagon BMD report said the U.S. network, which includes ground-based rockets on U.S. soil intended to intercept long-range missiles coming from the west from North Korea, could not cope with large-scale Russian or Chinese missile attacks and was not intended to affect the strategic balance with those countries.
Clearly neither Moscow nor Beijing accepts U.S. assurances, but they may be using America’s BMD plans as a pretext to do what they were going to do anyway. In either case, a new and destabilizing nuclear arms race is under way.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.