Pentagon tempted by North Korean launch
By Donald Kirk
NEW YORK - Strategic thinkers in the United States military establishment see
North Korea's plan to put a satellite into orbit in early April as the perfect
opportunity to show off the power of US counter-missile capability in the face
of what they perceive as a rising threat of attack on the US west coast from
thousands of kilometers away.
They want US forces in the western Pacific to be able to fire volleys of
heat-seeking Tomahawk missiles in a display of the ability of the US to defend
America's western frontiers. The Tomahawks are poised to be fired off guided
missile destroyers with AEGIS weapons systems equipped with radar to follow
enemy missiles for more than 320 kilometers.
North Korea has thrown down what is seen as a challenge to US
forces after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the US was ready to shoot
down any missile before it reached American shores. North Korea has notified
international agencies of its plan to fire a satellite-bearing missile between
April 4 and April 8.
The eagerness in some quarters to shoot down the long-range North Korean
Taepodong-2, the missile that would launch the North Korean satellite,
conflicts with the determination to counter the North Korean threat with
diplomacy, probably in the form of condemnation, including a call for
sanctions, by the United Nations Security Council.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister,
indicated the likelihood of a UN debate by saying the missile launch would
"threaten the peace and stability of the region". He spoke after the
International Maritime Organization in London said North Korea had sent word it
would launch the missile between 2am and 7pm on of the five days from the
fourth to the eighth of April. The formal North Korean notification is viewed
as a warning to the shipping industry that missile launch boosters could fall
into the East Sea, aka the Sea of Japan, in that time frame.
To Pentagon planners, the image of counter-missile missiles firing away at the
Taepodong-2 as it arcs over the northern Japanese island of Honshu on its way
to putting a satellite into orbit, as the North Koreans insist is the purpose
of the exercise, is compelling if not irresistible.
By shooting the missile down, defense experts note, the Pentagon would prove
its capability in deterring any missile from reaching Hawaii, Alaska or the US
west coast, all within range of the Taepodong-2. But the scenario of US forces
shooting down a missile, intriguing though it may sound, is not going to happen
for a couple of reasons.
The first is that US officials are well aware that shooting down the missile
would have tremendous repercussions in the region, inflaming tensions and
possibly inducing North Korea to a face-saving violent response that might well
include the launching of shorter-range missiles that the North has been
producing for years.
The second deterrent to a US attempt to shoot down a long-range North Korean
missile is what would happen should the missile elude the American
counter-missiles. So far, US warships have successfully fired two or three
times on missiles in carefully orchestrated exercises - but never in an
environment characterized by uncertainty as to the timing or course of the
As Art Brown, a former senior official with the Central Intelligence Agency,
reminded Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, "All tests have been with the
complete knowledge of the target's course, timing and characteristics." Thus
"the chance of missing is very high" - an outcome that Brown observed would be
The humiliation of having to acknowledge that US warships and the missiles they
carry might not be able to deter a North Korean missile so easily would add
immeasurably to the success of a mission that has already given huge propaganda
dividends for North Korea in terms of international attention and concern.
Still, the image of missiles and counter-missiles flying over the Pacific is
not as fanciful as one might imagine. If a real war were to break out, the US
would have to perfect its counter-missile warfare techniques or risk a
long-range missile with a nuclear-tipped warhead exploding on American soil.
All of which raises the specter of Star Wars - missiles targeting missiles,
missiles targeting satellites or, more frightening, satellites targeting one
another in battles many kilometers above the Earth's surface with the debris of
exploding satellites and missiles falling on innocent people in countries with
no involvement on either side in the conflict.
No one really believes the Star Wars scenario is going to happen, at least in
the lifetimes of those now on Earth. Think, though, of how much deadlier
warfare has become since lines of troops charged one another with fixed
bayonets in land wars over the past 200 to 300 years.
For that matter, let us remember that air wars, the spectacle of aircraft
bombing distant targets and fighting one another, would have been unimaginable
in the 19th century or even the early 20th century when the Wright brothers
flew the first rudimentary aircraft.
Nor would our ancestors have imagined that scientists and engineers would
create nuclear weapons capable of wiping out tens of thousands of people in a
single blast. The devastation of the only two atomic bombs ever dropped in
warfare, over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, was
not nearly as horrific as that of nuclear warheads so advanced that they are
able to wipe out millions of people in entire metropolitan areas.
It is the fear of this kind of mass killing that impels nations to agree on the
need for nuclear non-proliferation. The mere possession of nuclear warheads,
though, is a point of national pride. Just think of the crowds that burst out
cheering in India and Pakistan with the news of the first nuclear blasts in
each of those countries. And think of North Korea's pride, at least in the
rhetoric of broadcasts and editorials, when Pyongyang conducted its one and
only nuclear test on October 9, 2006.
It is a fact that warring nations find it very difficult to resist using every
weapon in their arsenals. US military strategists pressed for the use of
nuclear weapons after the Chinese entered the Korean War in late 1950 and
pressed again to use them to halt the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.
Historians look back on these conflicts as "limited wars" in which political
leaders decided against the use of nukes, but the possibility remains for a
wider war in Northeast Asia.
Given that threat, US war hawks believe that US forces in the western Pacific
should take up the challenge of a North Korean missile launch and show off
their skills in tracking and shooting it down. They might miss a few times, but
eventually they should prove their effectiveness.
Without proof of an effective deterrent, they say, there's no telling how far
the North Koreans are likely to go, first in developing the long-range
Taepodong-2 and, second, in exporting it elsewhere. Other countries in the
region, notably Japan and Taiwan, may figure they too need such a missile to
deliver warheads, though as of now neither possesses nuclear weapons.
As North Korea's missiles represent a significant step in the escalation of
tensions, the argument goes that the US, defending its own borders and also
protecting its allies in the region, will have to show the sophistication of
its weaponry in action. Only then, according to this logic, can anyone be sure
the northeast Asian powder keg will not explode into a wider war that could
engulf the region.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.