The US should build a pan-Asian missile shield

Richard A. Bitzinger February 12, 2017 11:30 PM (UTC+8)
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Missile defense has become a reality in the Asia-Pacific. In December 2007, Japan became the first country in the region to operationally test a missile defense system by shooting down a ballistic missile in flight. Ten years later, South Korea has tentatively agreed to accept the deployment of US-operated Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD for short. Given North Korea’s recent test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile — and possibly a new intercontinental ballistic missile — there perhaps has never been a better time to consider what only a few years ago would have been infeasible technologically and politically: a joint defense against missile attacks stretching from Japan to Australia.

Proliferating Missile Defenses in the Asia-Pacific

As ballistic missiles threats have proliferated throughout the Asia-Pacific, so too have missile defenses (MD). Japan is the furthest along in deploying a MD defense architecture. Tokyo is cooperating with the US to create a two-tiered missile defense system, comprising the Sea-based Midcourse Defense (SMD) system, centered on the Aegis/Standard SM-3 missile, and the land-based Patriot PAC-3 missile.

The SMD MD includes improvements to the original Aegis air defense system to enhance its range and reaction time in order to handle exo-atmospheric anti-missile engagements. The SM-3 Block IA missile is an improvement on the SM-2 Block IV missile, with the addition of a third-stage for extended range and a new kinetic warhead for terminal homing and intercept. Japan has incorporated the SMD system into its six Aegis-equipped air-defense destroyers, and by operating in the Sea of Japan it will provide missile defense coverage of the Japanese home islands.

The land-based Patriot PAC-3 system will provide endo-atmospheric “point-defense” protection against missile attacks. Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) has deployed PAC-3 units to various locations around Japan, including one near the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo. Altogether, Tokyo has spent more than one trillion yen (around US$9 billion) — including US$1 billion for joint research and development — to fully deploy its SMD/Patriot MD design.

Australia and South Korea are also currently acquiring air-warfare destroyers (AWDs) that utilize the Aegis/SM-2 missile combination. While neither country has at yet committed to upgrading to the SM- 3 SMD capability, it would not be too difficult to do this retroactively. The Aegis combat system is a modular, open architecture, and for their part, the Australians specifically factored in space and weight considerations for the SM-3 missile into the design and construction of their new AWDs. Additionally, the Koreans has acquired PAC-2 GEM+ (Guided Enhanced Missile Plus) systems secondhand from Germany, and may later purchase PAC-3s from the US. In addition to the US THAAD series, Seoul plans to develop its own high-altitude interceptor missile.

Other countries in Asia are also beefing up their missile defenses. Taiwan possesses several batteries of PAC-2 GEM+ and PAC-3 Patriot missiles, which have an anti- tactical ballistic missile (ATBM) capability, and it is developing its own ATBM, the Tien Kung III. Taiwan is also setting up a large phased-array radar, based on the huge AN/FPS-115 Pave Paws early- warning system, capable of detecting and tracking incoming missile attacks.

Even Singapore possesses two nascent ATBM systems, the Barak surface-to-air missile deployed on its Victory-class corvettes, and the Aster-15 missile, which is outfitting its new Formidable-class frigate. While the Barak has a limited missile defense capability, the Aster-15 is a true ATBM. Just as important, the Formidable-class frigate is a highly networked system, linked with both other RSN ships and across the Singapore Armed Forces as a whole; consequently, these new frigates constitute a critical node in the third-generation (3G) SAF when it comes to detecting, tracking, and engaging incoming missile threats.

Toward a Cooperative Missile Shield?

Increasingly, the hardware exists for a pan-Asian missile defense; what is then needed is the software of jointness and interoperability. Even here, considerable progress is being made.

In May 2006, Japan and the US agreed to cooperate more closely in the area of intelligence-gathering and -sharing when it comes to ballistic missile threats and working toward greater coordination of missile defense command and control. As a result, the US and Japan have established a bilateral joint operations coordination center at Yokota Air Base. As a practical matter for cooperation the US is deploying two X-Band radars for ballistic missile detection at the ASDF base in Shariki. Japan also intends to utilize its new FPS-XX early warning and tracking radar for missile defense, and to share data with US missile defense operators.

While not a party to this bilateral pact, Australia and South Korea could conceivably tap into missile defense via their Aegis-equipped destroyers. Australian and Korean ships could, at a minimum, can provide early warning and tracking of ballistic missiles and passing this information along to U.S. and Japanese SMD-equipped vessels.

It is worth noting that Australia and the US are currently exploring joint R& D on MD technologies — for example, upgrading and enhancing Australia’s indigenously developed Jindalee over-the-horizon radar network (JORN) — currently used to detect aircraft at long range — in order to give it greater range and sensitivity to detect incoming missiles during their early boost phase. Seoul hopes to cooperate with Washington on co-developing new ATBM technologies, with an eye toward integrating its localized point-defense systems into an extended missile defense infrastructure.

Not an Easy Course

No one says it will be easy, of course. China continues to fight US and allied efforts to build up missile defense in Asia, and it would probably particularly see a pan-Asian missile shield as an aggressive move. At the same time, multilateral defense cooperation is still difficult — or even antithetical — for countries like South Korea and Singapore. On the other hand, Japan’s recent embrace of collective defense smooths the way for increased military cooperation with the United States and Australia on issues like missile defense.

In an era of increasing missile threats by rogue states and other aggressors, it is important that democratic states in the Asia-Pacific see past their differences and embrace their mutual interests in defending each other — and therefore themselves — against such a common threat. Missile defense is here to stay, and the United States should take the lead in building a pan-Asian missile shield.

Richard A. Bitzinger
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
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