North Korean missiles are testing a stressed U.S. defense net

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WASHINGTON — The latest North Korean missile tests come at time when the U.S. defensive shield is weakened, missile-defense analysts say, by this summer’s loss of a pair of warships specially outfitted for ballistic-missile defense (BMD).

A Standard Missile (SM)-3 launches for a test from the USS Fitzgerald, a guided-missile destroyer equipped perform ballistic-missile defense that is now out of commission due to damage from a collision with a commercial ship. Credit: U.S. Navy
A Standard Missile (SM)-3 launches for a test from the USS Fitzgerald, a guided-missile destroyer equipped perform ballistic-missile defense that is now out of commission due to damage from a collision with a commercial ship. Credit: U.S. Navy

Those two guided-missile destroyers — the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald — collided with commercial ships, cutting down immediate regional U.S. maritime BMD capability by at least 14 percent.

The chinks in the ocean-going parts of the shield and the subsequent tests, the analysts say, show a need to develop and deploy more space-based sensors to guarantee full and continuous missile-defense coverage. A more robust space-based layer would also provide a more encompassing picture of threats than ship- or land-based radars.

The U.S. does possess a constellation of satellites to warn of missile launches, but what it lacks is enough satellites to provide adequate tracking and target discrimination for a missile traveling through space.

“A space sensor is not going to be a big radar,” said Thomas Karako, a senior fellow in the International Security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who runs the center’s Missile Defense Project. “It’s going to have electro-optical, infrared or a mix of things. It’s going to be a combination of different kinds of eyeballs providing different kinds of looks.”

And the U.S. is going to need as many viewpoints as possible to monitor North Korea’s increasingly provocative and probing missile tests.

The most dramatic North Korean test to date — at least in terms of regional reaction — happened Aug. 29 when a missile launched from the Sunan region near Pyongyang flew over Japan, causing the government’s J-Alert system to warn people about the danger. The rocket traveled about 2,700 kilometers before splashing into the Pacific Ocean near the northern Hokkaido region. It was first such overflight of Japan by North Korean rocket since 2009.

The most recent overflight was preceded Aug. 26 by a series of tests, during which North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles from Kittaeryong, according to U.S. Pacific Command, with at least two flying approximately 250 kilometers in a northeastern direction and splashing into the sea.

Pacific Command initially reported that first and third missiles “failed in flight,” but corrected that statement about six hours later, acknowledging the missiles did successfully fly. Asked about the cause of the incorrect information initially released, an official declined to comment further about any “details of intelligence.”

Following the Japanese overflight, the White House released a statement from President Trump:  “The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior. Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table.”

But the range for options is getting thinner in the wake of the loss of two U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers with Aegis combat systems reconfigured for BMD.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency and Navy successfully tested a Standard Missile (SM)-6 interceptor in August 2017 off the Coast of Hawaii. Credit: U.S. Navy /Latonja Martin
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency and Navy successfully tested a Standard Missile (SM)-6 interceptor in late August off the Coast of Hawaii. Credit: U.S. Navy /Latonja Martin

 

The USS John S. McCain collided Aug. 20 with an oil tanker near the eastern entrance of the Straits of Malacca. The USS Fitzgerald collided June 17 with a merchant cargo ship off the coast of Japan.

U.S. Navy officials have dismissed any notion the temporary loss of the ships will interfere with BMD missions. Speaking at the Osan Air Base in South Korea Aug. 22, Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of Pacific Command, told reporters, “I will hope that no one will test the U.S. on the perception that we’ve had a problem with USS John S. McCain — that would be a very foolhardy thing to do.”

The same day, Adm. Scott Swift, Pacific Fleet commander, tried to allay fears due to the ship losses, saying publicly, “We have a deep bench.”

Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, Pacific Fleet spokeswoman, was more explicit. “We have sufficient BMD-capable ships in the 7th Fleet area of responsibility to meet our mission.”

The 7th Fleet is the largest forward-deployed U.S. fleet and its area of responsibility includes the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. But the math, analysts said, does not support the contention that the loss of the two BMD ships won’t hamper the fleet’s missile-shield mission.

Harris and the other commanders of the various global combatant commands say the U.S. would need 77 BMD-equipped ships to fully address current and emerging missile threats around the globe, Karako noted.

With the McCain and Fitzgerald sidelined, the Navy has just 32 such ships — eight fewer than the 40 ships the Navy describes as its minimum requirement for fulfilling its BMD mission (Combatant commanders often desire more ships than what the Navy itself sees as the true requirement balanced against competing naval needs).

Before the loss, 10-14 of those specially equipped destroyer and cruisers were on the command of the 7th Fleet at any given. But, as with any combat ship, due to maintenance, training and repositioning schedules, only a third of those ships may be truly operational at any given moment.

“The loss of two of these ships is not insignificant,” Karako said.

The Navy has no deployable BMD ships to spare, said author Robert Haddick, whose 2014 book, “Fire on the Water: China, America and the Future of the Pacific,” is considered a must-read for many concerned with missile defense in the Asia-Pacific

“Only a minority of those ships is forward-deployed and they have to be supplemented in a major way out of San Diego” for the Western Pacific, Haddick said.

“It’s a zero-sum game – somebody is going to have to pay” to replace the lost BMD ships, he said. “It could be from a carrier strike group somewhere.”

The BMD ships can fire exo-atmospheric Raytheon Standard Missile (SM)-3 interceptors or gather data on launches, he noted. “They provide additional fidelity for tracking and performance of the North Korean launches – for missile trajectory paths.”

Karako agreed. “The immediate impact of the loss of two ships is real, both in terms of shooters and sensors. We have to put ships out in the Pacific. The whole problem is to provide persistent and widespread coverage for so many different places – Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States.”

To do that, he said, missile-defense planners need to look more toward space.