Thirty-four years after Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to protect the United States and its allies against missile attack, the US still does not have reliable countermeasures to the kind of threat that North Korea might pose some time in the next few years.
Defending the US or Japan against a small number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is a task that lies well within the technological frontier, so the lapse is all the harder to excuse. The United States should not have to bandy threats with the likes of Kim Jong-un. It should simply make Pyongyang’s investment in nuclear-weapons technology irrelevant and obsolete.
The survival strategy of the North Korean regime is to position itself as the craziest player in the game. Whatever threat the United States might make, Pyongyang will make a yet crazier one, knowing perfectly well that US military options are constrained by Korean geography.
North Korea has at least 700 heavy guns that could strike Seoul, 55 kilometers from the border, and an artillery barrage would cause massive civilian casualties, if not quite flatten the South Korean capital. Nothing short of a tactical nuclear strike could silence those guns, and it would be hard to protect Seoul from the fallout.
Starting with the Bill Clinton administration in 1994, Washington sought to appease North Korea, providing light-water nuclear reactors and fuel oil in return for a suspension of plutonium production. Pyongyang dumped the deal in 2002 and went back to making plutonium.
The Donald Trump administration, spokesman Stephen Miller said this week, rejects “years of failed policy”. Miller added: “You see the engagement of the world community on North Korea. You see passage of the UN Security Council resolution with the votes of China and Russia on North Korea – we are making the world a safer place.”
Obtaining Russia’s and China’s signatures on a Security Council resolution is a solid diplomatic accomplishment. But the exchange of public threats with Pyongyang, punctuated by Trump’s “fire and fury” remark on Tuesday, has the unintended consequence of raising the stature of the North Korean regime. Elevating a rogue regime to the status of a serious threat simply gives Kim more negotiating leverage and a great claim to importance.
Military malpractice on the part of the Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations left the United States without reliable missile defense, allowing a spoiler with a minor inventory the opportunity to blackmail the world’s most powerful country.
Trump should recall the advice of Obama adviser Rahm Emanuel: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The Korean kerfuffle gives the president the opportunity to bulldoze opposition to a revived strategic defense program.
There are a number of options in missile defense, and the United States should select “all of the above”. Which technologies best suit US or Japanese requirements remains unclear. There are several promising options that could be deployed with a crash program well before the North Koreans can build a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM.
Writing in Asia Times on August 5, former Pentagon official Stephen Bryen argued that Israel’s “Arrow” anti-missile system could defend Japan against an eventual North Korean missile attack far better than its existing THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) or Patriot systems.
“Arrow 3,” Bryen observed, “is the only ballistic missile defense system that has shot down an enemy rocket hundreds of miles from where it was launched.” Unlike the THAAD system, which requires a direct hit by an anti-missile projectile, Arrow employs explosives with a proximity fuse.
Angelo Codevilla argued in an April interview with Asia Times that the United States should build a missile defense system that can protect allies such as Japan and South Korea as well as the United States itself. Codevilla, one of the strategists who helped formulate Reagan’s SDI, argues that space-based anti-missile technology mothballed during the Clinton era can be made practical.
This would have multiple strategic benefits, he added: “China’s main operational goal in Northeast Asia is to wean South Korea away from the US. It’s doing this by saying, ‘Look, the Americans can’t protect you.’ If the South Koreans ask why, the Chinese respond, ‘It’s because the Americans can’t even protect themselves.’ But if the Americans had a new missile defense — it would be a game changer.”
The United States deliberately focused on theater anti-missile defense (THAAD and Patriot) rather than strategic defense, with the tacit understanding that it would not offer a defense against Russian or Chinese ICBMs. If the United States determined to put strategic defense in place, Moscow and Beijing would object furiously.
But the Trump administration can now say to China, “We gave you the chance to talk sense into your North Korean ally, and you have failed to do so. Now we have to take measures to protect ourselves and our allies.” And it can point out to Russia that its opportunistic support for the Pyongyang regime has left Washington no choice but to adopt a policy that Moscow likes the least.
A crash program to build missile defense would have two side benefits, each of which ultimately is far more important than the Korean matter as such.
First, it would awaken America’s long-dormant engine of scientific innovation, threatening to leapfrog the advances that Russia and China have made in defense technology. America’s competitors remember that communism collapsed during the late 1980s when the Soviet economy could not keep up with US advances in computation and avionics. Restoring US technological supremacy will make Moscow and Beijing more likely to act sensibly on other matters of contention, for example Ukraine and the Middle East.
Second, it would generate a productivity impulse that would help reverse the long secular decline in US productivity growth. Virtually all the technologies that make up the modern economy, from cheap and powerful integrated circuits to sensors, LED (light-emitting diode) screens, flat panels, optical networks and the Internet arose from the technological exigencies of the Cold War.
Defense technology defined the cutting edge of research, because it demanded solutions to frontier physical problems that private researchers otherwise would not have addressed. I reviewed the case in favor of a defense driver for US manufacturing productivity in a February 2017 essay in the Journal of American Affairs.
The Korean crisis offers the White House a golden opportunity to seize the strategic and economic initiative simultaneously. If the US creates the next generation of technologies in missile defense, it also will have an edge in their civilian spinoffs.