The US has rained cruise missiles on a Syrian air field and obliterated an Islamic State complex in Afghanistan with a giant conventional bomb. Both displays of military might have been touted as veiled warnings to North Korea, bringing to mind the old Chinese adage of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.”
But what are the US’s military options in dealing with Pyongyang short of full-scale war?
Angelo Codevilla, a former top Senate Intelligence Committee official, says the main military option is downing a North Korean test missile soon after it leaves its launch pad. He says this can be achieved with various anti-missile systems in the US arsenal.
But the real elephant in the room, according to Codevilla, is China. He says China’s overriding concern in the crisis is a US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea that’s been deployed to intercept incoming North Korean missiles.
He says China fiercely opposes the move because it fears Washington will eventually bolster anti-missile systems of this type with advanced space-based optical systems that can detect and destroy Chinese missiles on launch — regardless of where they’re fired from in China.
The former Reagan-era national security honcho says this would be a game changer. It would give the US a huge edge in deploying anti-missile defenses that can also shield the US mainland against Chinese and Russian missiles.
Codevilla spoke with Asia Times about the North Korean threat, China and US anti-missile defense strategy.
AT: Can the US successfully intercept North Korean missiles using anti-missile systems or other technology?
Codevilla: Right now, the answer is yes. As a matter of fact, US anti-missile systems have been designed primarily to intercept North Korean missiles. They really can’t do anything else.
But as these North Korean missiles become more sophisticated and are launched farther away from the coast and arc higher for longer range, they cause more trouble. Moreover, US missile defenses in and around Korea have been predicated on the assumption that North Korea’s missiles would be few in number. More than a handful at a time would be very problematical.
AT: What would be the military/political consequences with North Korea if the US starts intercepting North Korean missiles?
Codevilla: The military consequences would be practically nil. Basically, we would have nothing to fear militarily from (retaliatory) North Korean missile strikes right now. Politically, the consequences would be even less. I would bet that North Korea would not do anything because while they may be crazy — they are not stupid.
Not only are their missiles likely to be shot down, but launching them could also cause troubles that they could not possibly remedy — such as embargoes of food and a naval blockade that would collapse the regime.
AT: Will North Korea do anything?
Codevilla: I don’t think North Korea will go beyond doing what it’s been doing so successfully for the past 25 years — which is to say — a blackmail scheme which the US has been perfectly content to play along with.
AT: China’s state-run newspaper Global Times recently ran an editorial suggesting that Beijing would tolerate a “surgical strike” against North Korea’s nuke facilities. Does this represent a major shift in China’s stance toward Pyongyang?
Codevilla: In this regard, suggestions that China has changed its policy toward North Korea and would not object to a US “surgical strike” on North Korea’s nuclear program are based on throwaway lines in a state-run newspaper. China reiterated its pro forma statements and disapproval of North Korea’s nukes and its talk of economic sanctions. And of course, China’s response to a US surgical strike on North Korea would not be World War III.
But, for the first time, China made its own, North Korea’s threat to devastate Seoul in the case of such a strike. It even (signaled) that it would invade were the US or South Korea try to reunify the peninsula by force. No — the China/North Korea game continues as it has for the past half century.
AT: What role is China playing in the THAAD controversy and what are its real security concerns about US anti-missile defense cooperation with South Korea?
Codevilla: China is the real elephant in the room. All the noise that China has been making about the deployment of THAAD to South Korea has absolutely nothing to do with North Korea and everything to do with Chinese missiles.
Current THAAD radar has a range of about 1,000 miles or perhaps a little less. The missile has a range of approximately 600 miles. This is enough to defend South Korea and parts of Japan against missiles coming from China a little bit. I emphasize the words, “little bit.”
What China is worried about is this “little bit” becoming a lot bigger.
AT: Can you explain the technicalities?
Codevilla: In order to intercept a missile, the interceptor missile has to have precise targeting information. This targeting information has to come before the incoming missile gets too close. In order for that time/distance problem to be solved to the interceptor’s advantage, the information has to come early. The incoming missile also has to be launched in range of the interceptor’s radar, taking into account the curvature of the earth.
If you cannot launch the interceptor early enough, the incoming missile can almost be launched with impunity because by the time it’s picked up, it’s too late to shoot it down. China is a very large country. This helps them to launch largely outside the range of current US anti-missile radar.
The THAAD radar in South Korea, never mind Guam, is not close enough to provide accurate information early enough to defend against this threat. That is why THAAD’s actual effect on China itself is very marginal at best.
AT: How would the US defend South Korea and Japan against missiles launched from China?
Codevilla: The short answer is that to defend the Pacific Rim against Chinese missiles, the US will have to extend its information architecture so that it reaches all of China. If you want to beat the time/distance problem for missile defense, you cannot do it from the surface of the earth using surface-based radar. You have to do it from space.
This involves using (non-radar) optical systems in orbit that can “see” these missiles regardless of where they are fired from in China, so they can get precise taking information and relay it directly to the interceptor missile so it can be launched directly on the basis of this information.
AT: So we’re talking about an improved US anti-missile shield that can defend more than South Korea and Japan?
Codevilla: Yes. We’re talking about an anti-missile system that can defend the entire US.
AT: Can the US develop such space-based optical systems?
Codevilla: The technology is in mothballs. We were developing a system called SBIRS-Low but scrapped it because it violated the (US/USSR) 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty’s ban on systems that can “substitute for” ground-based radars. The system was not revived despite our formal abrogation of that treaty.
But China and Russia fear the US is now inching towards the realization that if we’re going to defend Korea, Japan, Israel or other countries, we’re going to have to use such systems.
AT: Would this upset existing arms control agreements between the US, Russia and China?
Codevilla: We should surely be going against the spirit thereof. More important, we would be overturning current US policy, which is to put no obstacle in the way of Chinese and Russian missiles reaching the US.
AT: How would such improved anti-missile defenses impact China’s relations with North Korea?
Codevilla: An improved US anti-missile system would not only be important in a general war between the US and China or Russia — it would also be important in the day-to-day push and pull of international affairs.
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.
AT: Some media reports suggest that a North Korean missile that blew up after lifting off on April 16 was sabotaged. Is it possible the US is using cyber and electronic strikes against North Korea’s missile tests?
Codevilla: I don’t know. When you have an embryonic missile program run by people in North Korea who don’t really know what they’re doing, it’s remarkable that there haven’t been more failures like the one earlier this month. Tests are tests.
AT: But could the US employ such technology to thwart North Korea’s missiles?
Codevilla: It’s possible. But to do a successful cyber attack one would have to have large amounts of intelligence and literally know the details of their rocket fuel systems. Otherwise, the only kind of cyber attack you can wage is a brute force one (using automated software to crack encrypted data). That could be done, I suppose, but it’s so obvious. There would be no doubt about it.