For much of the atomic age, intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have been the epitome of nuclear arsenals in popular imagination and in the policies of many states seeking to join the nuclear club. Threatening the certainty of immediate destruction of an adversary’s homeland, ICBMs more than any other weapon are associated with the condition of mutual assured destruction between the two nuclear superpowers, Russia and the United States.
ICBMs made their first appearance in Asia in the early 1960s, aboard U.S. Polaris submarines and in the depths of Siberia. These were followed by China’s deployment of the Dongfeng-5 land-based ICBMs in the early 1980s. In more recent years, Pakistan and India have both fielded ballistic missiles of sufficient range to strike each other’s territory, while India’s Agni V missile program will soon give it the ability to range all of China’s population centres as well.
The most recent entrant to this nuclear long-range missile club is North Korea. Its seemingly successful test in July 2017 of an ICBM that could reach the U.S. West Coast was just as important for its status as a nuclear power as its probable demonstration of thermonuclear warhead technology in the September 2017 nuclear test. Today, Asia is home to six nuclear powers – the U.S., Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – which all have mastered at least the bare minimum of the missile technology required for their chosen deterrence postures. Even North Korea must now be credited with a limited, but nonetheless real, thermonuclear ICBM capability.
This is not to say that scope does not remain for significant technological improvement of many of these arsenals. All of Asia’s nuclear powers are working on submarine-launched missiles, but technological difficulties and the need to make the submarines themselves survivable against an adversaries’ anti-submarine forces, mean land-based capabilities will for many years remain the mainstay of their nuclear arsenals.
India’s Agni V and North Korea’s Hwasong-14 remain under active development and testing. The failure of North Korea’s second test of the missile in late July 2017 was probably due to a more advanced re-entry vehicle design. India and China have joined Russia and the US in the ability to use solid-fuel engines for ICBMs, while Pakistan and Iran are working to transition their medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) programs away from liquid fuel.
North Korea’s long-range missile programs however – perhaps due to their heavy reliance on creative re-use of Soviet technology – still heavily rely on liquid fuel engines. And the precision of modern U.S. warheads, which has given all its ICBMs an even greater ability to destroy hardened point targets than they had during the Cold War, remains far greater than that achieved by any Asian nuclear power.
And yet, these differences today reflect strategic choices as much as basic technological ability. During the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. used precise missiles with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) to improve their missile exchange ratios in a nuclear counterforce campaign. China has now also deployed MIRV-ed warheads on some of its missiles, while India and Pakistan continue to research this technology. However, their interest lies in increasing the lethality of their small arsenals in general, and of the fraction that might survive an adversary’s counterforce strike and ballistic missile defence (BMD) system in particular.
The slow pace of China and India’s long-range missile modernisations remains consistent with their underlying minimum deterrence postures, and indicative of the relatively low priority placed on the modernisation of their nuclear arsenals.
Access to technology has thus ceased to be the major constraint on the missile programs of the nuclear powers in Asia. This is a fundamental change from the situation during the Cold War and the 1990s when export controls in general, and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in particular, were the main levers used by industrial nations to manage the threat of missile proliferation.
It is a development that was correctly forecast in the 1998 report of the independent Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the U.S. (or ‘Rumsfeld Commission’ after its chairman, the previous and future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld). This report, in turn, was a major influence on the George W. Bush Administration’s decision in 2002 to withdraw from the 1971 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, and proceed with a crash program to field a rudimentary ability to defend the U.S. homeland against an ICBM attack.
In hindsight, the debates on the merits of missile defence in the U.S. during the second Clinton and first George W. Bush administrations were echoes of earlier Cold War debates, and not reflective of the new, multipolar nuclear world facing the U.S. and its allies today.
The argument that a nuclear missile threat was best met by embracing the vulnerability of one’s own population, and that it was ‘destabilising’ if not even morally wrong to seek to defend oneself against such a threat, did not survive long the reality of Iranian and North Korean missile and nuclear programs in the first decade of the 21st Century. The Australian Government’s rejection of ‘unilateral national missile defence systems’ in its 2009 Defence White Paper (DWP) was thus less a return than an epitaph to the inter-allied BMD debates of the 1980s that had raged on the Reagan Administration’s plans for a ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’.
Today, the U.S. and, in its geographic context, Israel, are most advanced in terms of the technology, breadth and number of their BMD systems. Most numerous and reliable are point-defence systems that grew out of general air defence missiles and that can intercept short-range missiles inside the atmosphere, such as Patriot or Standard Missile (SM)-2 block IV. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries suitable to defend larger areas against longer-range MRBM are now deployed on the U.S. island of Guam and in South Korea.
However, the development of exo-atmospheric systems, which can intercept longer-range IRBM and ICBM warheads in space, has been less straightforward. The Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) and ship-based SM-3 that were pressed into service in the mid-2000s were based on technology demonstrators, not regular development programs. By the end of 2017 there will be 44 GBI installed, mainly in silos in Alaska. They are the only systems able to defend the continental U.S. from an ICBM attack, but the GBI production line has been shut down pending the successful test of a completely new kill vehicle that will address the shortcomings of existing designs.
Hence, North Korea’s demonstration of its ICBM capability has even further increased public and policy focus on the SM-3 system. SM-3 had a relatively more successful test record, and greater visibility and political relevance for allies as it is forward deployed on US Navy Aegis ships, co-produced with Japan and in service with the Japanese Navy. However, the block II version with an enlarged booster that makes full use of the space available in the Mk41 Vertical Launch System (VLS), is also yet to enter service. While this will provide both greater speed and increased range, and hence broaden the geometry of feasible intercept locations, the size limitations of naval launch systems will always make SM-3 more suitable for intercept of IRBM than of true ICBM, especially if these are launched from inland.
Despite the limitations of early interceptor designs, U.S. and allied missile defence capabilities will thus continue to improve, not least because of improvements to battle management systems that link different sensors and enable more flexible employment of interceptors. Shore-based installation of SM-3, as existing in Romania, under construction in Poland and planned for Japan, will address some of the cost, capacity and availability issues that come with deployment on ships.
However, short of fundamental technological breakthroughs in direct energy, electromagnetic guns or space-based systems, the capacity of BMD systems will continue to lag by an order of magnitude the large conventional missile arsenals of Russia and China: US THAAD or SM-3 interceptor numbers measure in the low hundreds and are dispersed not just within Asia, but also in the Middle East and Europe. How much can missile defences thus really contribute to managing threats from missiles in Asia?
Intercepting adversary missiles is ultimately only a means to deny the adversary the strategic objectives they seek through missile use.
North Korea, as well as China in the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits Crisis, have sought to use missile ‘tests’ for political signalling and intimidation – to ultimately counterproductive effect. Today, the U.S. and Japan have the technical ability to intercept North Korean missile tests. Incentives to do so will only increase if Pyongyang makes good on its threat to test a live nuclear missile in the Pacific.
In war, ballistic missiles have repeatedly been used in large numbers against civilian targets to impose generalised cost and hardship on the adversary, including by Germany in the Second World War, and by Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. This is the most challenging setting for missile defence systems from a cost-benefit calculation of individual intercepts, but also where missile defences have in recent years proved most effective in the defence of Israel against persistent attacks from the Gaza strip, and of Saudi Arabian cities against dozens of Scud and other missiles fired by from Yemen since 2016. In both conflicts, blunting the missile arsenals of Hamas and the Houthi rebels meant that Israel and Saudi Arabia were able to maintain control over the pace and intensity of these conflicts.
In Asia, however, China’s conventional ballistic missiles directed against US, Taiwanese and Japanese forces and bases are far greater in number, as would be the cost of failing to intercept a single nuclear-tipped missile.
Even limited missile defence, as now exists at strategic bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam, and of centres of government in Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo, can help limit damage (for example, by allowing vulnerable large-bodied aircraft to depart before interceptors are exhausted), or make a decapitation strike far less likely to succeed. There is a good chance that even limited defences of the U.S. continent would deny success to a North Korean ICBM attack, reduce the ability of China to improvise limited use of nuclear weapons in a conflict with the US, or blunt retaliation after a US counterforce campaign to destroy an adversary’s nuclear arsenal.
In these scenarios, however, the value and role of missile defence capabilities only arise from their interaction with offensive forces. Controlling nuclear (and conventional) dangers from missiles in Asia must rest on nuclear deterrence, conventional counterforce capabilities and missile defence, and there are signs that the value of ballistic missiles for the U.S. and its allies in this mix of forces is starting to be increasingly recognised once more.
This is most obvious in the case of South Korea, which in 2012 agreed with the U.S. on a relaxation of earlier restrictions on its ballistic missile capabilities, and is now fielding ballistic missiles of 800-kilometre range that can target all of North Korea. More recently, U.S. President Donald Trump also agreed that South Korea may field warheads above 500 kilograms, which will allow it to hold at risk a larger number of North Korean hardened bunkers. In wartime, South Korea’s own missile capabilities will thus be a major factor blunting the missile threat from the North.
The ballistic missile capabilities of the U.S. itself, however, remain limited by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia that bans it from operating or testing land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5500 kilometres: exactly the type of arsenal that, in Chinese hands, is today a major threat to US military forces and installations in East Asia.
The U.S. and German Pershing II missiles that were destroyed after 1987 were the first true precision-guided ballistic missiles. As long as the INF treaty remains in force, China can gain all the benefits of using conventional ballistic missiles – such as survivability, speed, throw-weight and ability to mass attack – against U.S. and allied targets, while bearing none of the cost of having to cope with the same threat itself. And even in Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has now lost its non-INF, nuclear systems of similar range (such as the F-111 bombers and French land-based missiles), while Russia continues to use Backfire bombers to intimidate NATO members and neutrals like Sweden, and has violated the treaty by testing a prohibited system from a land-based launcher.
The future of the INF treaty is thus not only a major question for international arms control and NATO-Russia relations, but also for the strategic balance in East Asia. Given the heavy reliance by Asian nuclear powers on ballistic missiles for their minimum deterrents, there are no incentives for them to disarm by joining the INF treaty.
Ultimately, however, the purpose of arms control is to help stabilise regional balances and reduce incentives for conflict. Today, China’s ability to conduct a large-scale, conventional missile strike against the U.S. and its allies carries the real risk that, to borrow a Cold War phrase, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leadership might think it can brief the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party with a plausible theory of victory. To reduce the threat from missiles in Asia, the US and its allies may have to acquire more of their own.
Editor’s note: this article was originally published at Policy Forum, December 12, 2017, and is re-printed here with the author’s permission.
Image: An operational test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM at midnight, May 3, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Photo: U.S. Air Force