From Political Taboo to Strategic Hedge: A US Perspective on Ballistic Missile Defense

April 3, 2015

The Asan Forum:

Dr. Van Jackson

Ballistic missile defense (BMD) is both expensive and largely unproven;1 so on what basis might we judge its value? This article offers a US perspective about the utility of BMD in support of Korean security. At the regional level, it is a logical hedge in a modern security environment filled with long-range precision weapons. On the Korean Peninsula, it is a responsible counter against the growth and consolidation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. And within the US-ROK alliance, it increases the likelihood of US commitment to the ROK in the event of a crisis or conflict on the peninsula. Beyond these rational, material incentives to pursue BMD in the ROK, there is also an overwhelming ideational consideration: in light of Chinese warnings against pursuing certain types of BMD, officials in the United States and around the region may view ROK decisions about BMD as a leading indicator of loyalty in a long-term strategic competition between China and the United States. In this way, BMD in Korea is about far more than Korea.

BMD and the Future of War

Missiles are a reality of modern warfare. The spread of cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of various types enables militaries of any size or sophistication to strike others lethally, rapidly, with precision, and from great distances.2 Because much of the technology involved in these “guided munitions” is available commercially, barriers to acquisition and employment are low. Technologies like these give actors with malign intentions an unprecedented ability to do harm; in the hands of militaries, they can be tools not just of violence but of coercion that extract political demands from adversaries. In the 1970s, only the United States possessed the ability to strike quickly with long-range guided munitions because of the complex of supporting technologies it required: computing power, lasers, GPS technology, satellite communications, and long-range rockets.3 Today, each of these components exists in the private sector, and the weapons they support—ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and UAVs—are part of the arsenals of every advanced military, including South Korea’s.

A security environment in which one’s neighbors deploy guided munitions of various types is an environment that should logically favor offensive rather than defensive action in the sense that guided munitions make rapid, calibrated violence easier than at any point in military history.4 In this environment, BMD is one of very few military tools that help restore a balance between offense and defense because it is one of very few tools capable of countering guided munitions.

Whatever South Korea’s assessment of its security interests today, its geopolitical history is one of repeated invasion and victimization, and its contemporary security environment is one where all of its neighbors possess guided munitions. Overwhelming near-term concerns about North Korea tend to dominate South Korean security calculations, but longer-term geopolitical disputes potentially remain just over the horizon. In the modern era, China has laid scholarly claim to historical Koguryo, a northern portion of the Korean Peninsula.5 Even more recently, China’s air defense identification zone has impinged on South Korean airspace.6Russia, long passive in Asian affairs, has rekindled a political and economic relationship with North Korea, with hints of a military dimension as well. And Japan, constrained by both a pacifist constitution and a shared alliance with the United States, is in the process of separating itself from its pacifist identity; its military is the most technologically advanced in the region, and it refuses to abandon its claims to the island territory South Korea occupies and claims as Dokdo.8

None of these circumstances constitute cause for alarm, and none threaten South Korea today. But collectively and individually, they reveal to South Korea a real basis for disputes with neighboring states, who happen to possess multiple types of guided munitions, and some of whom are already developing next-generation hypersonic missiles.9 In future diplomatic contexts, does South Korea prefer to engage and negotiate with others knowing it is wholly vulnerable to their military arsenals? Or will South Korea feel more comfortable dealing with neighboring powers with a narrower military gap between them? BMD is a measure to narrow that gap without being inherently antagonistic toward others…

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