Recent developments in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula raise new questions about the adequacy of U.S. missile defense efforts with its allies. North Korean technology continues to advance, while Lebanon-based Hezbollah forces are using more sophisticated rockets to strike deeper into Israel.
CFR fellow Michael A. Levi, an expert on weapons of mass destruction, says the United Statesis assisting Japan in setting up missile defense systems that can be effective against short-range North Korean missiles. But he says these efforts involve a delicate phase in political-military relationships. In the context of the current Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Levi says “the primary missile defense for Israelis is bomb shelters” and they have saved many lives.
Missile and rocket issues are major concerns for both the Korean Peninsula and in Israel/Lebanon. But in each case the threshold really now has risen. The North Koreans are more capable, or claim to be more capable than they used to be. The use of slightly more sophisticated rockets by Hezbollah, supplied by Iran, has changed the situation for the Israelis, too. How does the current state of anti-missile technology apply to these two conflicts?
In the North Korean case, what you have is a technology that has advanced, but it hasn’t advanced as much as our projections thought it would. Given that we were designing missile defenses against those projections, the fact that we’ve seen some advance demonstrated by North Korea is not a shock to the missile defense system. It’s actually something of a relief. With Hezbollah, this is not really technological advance. It’s an advance in what Iran is willing to supply it with, and these are far from new technologies for Iran. It also is an advance in what Hezbollah is willing to do. They may have had the capability to strike Haifa for a while, but haven’t used it.
Let’s talk about the systems currently fielded against these missiles. In North Korea, there’s a nascent Japanese-American effort to put together a missile shield, and then there’s the sea-borne Aegis cruisers and destroyers off-shore.
North Korea has a range of missiles—short range, medium range, potentially long range, though they haven’t demonstrated that capability. And the United States, in some cases with its partners, is developing a range of missile defenses against these. In general, missile defenses against shorter-range threats are more effective both because they’ve been worked on for longer, and because the job is easier. The missiles move more slowly, you can generally attack them from closer to their launch points, and also, because they cover a smaller range of targets, you can potentially defend each target individually, whereas with a long-range missile—that might be able to hit any point in the United States some time in the future—defending each target point by itself is not feasible. It’s not feasible technically; it’s also not feasible politically because if you defend twenty-five sites, the mayor of the twenty-sixth site is going to be very angry. During the North Korean launches, the United States and Japan used Aegis ships in missile defense mode. The coordination was, from the American and Japanese perspective, very good—much better than in 1998 [the first time North Korea tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile]. In particular, Japanese air defense radars were able to compensate for the reduced capacity of the Aegis ships when they were operating in missile defense mode.
What about the separate land-based Japanese-American missile shield initiative that is underway?
The initial transfer of PAC-3 [Patriot Advanced Capability-3] technology to Japan is focused on what’s called terminal-phase defending—that is, in the last stage of missile flight. It’s probably the best proven technology. It’s an evolution from the Patriot missiles that we saw in the first Gulf War, and it is much better. But it’s important to remember these technology transfers aren’t strictly technical. They’re also about cementing political and military relationships. A lot of the discussion in Japan has been about that. Japan caused a lot of stir a couple of weeks ago when they announced they could take preemptive strikes against North Korean missiles. What they really meant was the United States could use Japanese bases to take preemptive strikes against North Korean missiles. It gives you a feel for the importance of taking up these technical military moves as political moves.
The PAC-3 is the extent of the land-based system that’s envisioned over there?
I’m not entirely sure to be honest, but I believe it’s dominated by PAC-3. I think [there is] maybe THAAD [Theater High-Altitude Area Defense] in the future but THAAD doesn’t really exist. We’re probably not going very far beyond what was initially envisioned for PAC-3 transfers to Japan. What we’re doing is speeding it up. The one potentially contentious issue is whether that means moving money up in the Japanese budget, or whether it means displacing other Japanese defense investments that are also very important to the United States, both globally but also simply in deterring North Korea. You want to be careful about the trade-off. You don’t want to get yourself in a situation where in exchange for investing in missile defense you reduce your deterrent to missile launches in the first place.
Let’s look at the Hezbollah-Israeli front now. The Israelis have the jointly developed Arrow [theater missile defense]. Is it relevant in this conflict?
My understanding is that Arrow really is not relevant to this conflict because it’s aimed at longer range, honest-to-goodness missiles—Scuds and these sorts of things—and we have no indication that Hezbollah is going to use Scuds. It could be potentially relevant if the conflict widens to states like Iran and Syria. Ultimately, the primary missile defense for Israelis is bomb shelters. That is what has been keeping Israeli casualties down. Obviously they don’t protect property, but they do protect lives. Israelis have also stayed away from high-value targets. For example, people working near the oil refineries in Haifa have simply stopped going to work, especially since those have been hit.
Looking outside what is currently deployed, what is the realm of the possible with regard to things like Katyusha rockets and small rocket artillery? Is there a potential defense beyond just getting into a bunker?
There’s talk of high-energy laser systems. The problem is that it appears they can be easily overwhelmed by large barrages of missiles. Unless you procure huge numbers of these things, they can be overwhelmed. For the time being, and for the foreseeable future, bomb shelters and efforts to prevent these rockets from being launched in the first place are the main ways to defend. I mean, simply go back to the Korean ppeninsula. What’s the biggest deterrent North Korea has? It has the ability to launch huge amounts of artillery at Seoul, and still no one is talking seriously about being able to stop all that as it comes over. I don’t know that it’s any more realistic to think you can defend Israel in a similar way.
What is the lesson, if any, for the larger U.S. strategic missile shield program?
Historically, we’ve gravitated toward missile shields that are supposed to deal with everything. It’s more useful to invest in missile shields that may not be able to work against all threats but do work against some limited number of very significant threats. And in the North Korean case, that means investing in boost-phase defense against ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] rather than in this mid-course defense system. The investments in boost-phase defense really have not been commensurate with their potential. Not only do these have a much bigger probability of working in the near term against the North Korean threat, but they do less to antagonize other countries. So to me that’s where the real potential is. This is, to some extent, like taking the Aegis concept one step further and modifying it to work against ICBMs rather than just short- and medium-range missiles.
In the case of Israel , at the level of small rockets, civil defense is where the game is at. At the same time, missile defenses play a role in either deterring or defending against attack if the conflict widens or if a future conflict is wider. But again, even in the Israeli case missile defense is as much about cementing a political relationship as it is about military effectiveness. During the first Gulf War, Patriot missiles were very ineffective, but to a good extent, deployment of Patriot batteries in Israel may have helped keep Israel out of the Gulf War, which was a major American objective. Is there a technical reason for that? No. But the deployment sent a political signal that had a very important effect, and that had important implications for the strategic program.