Brad Roberts on Extended Deterrence II: The Missile Defense Component



Yesterday, we started a review of a thoughtful essay by Brad Roberts on extended deterrence in Northeast Asia. An advantage of the piece was the insight it shed on less well-known components of the pivot, including efforts to assure Japan and Korea with respect to extended deterrence. In that post, we focused on the issue of nuclear "tailoring"; the role of nuclear weapons in extended deterrence. Today we take up the missile defense component.

A well-known paradox in grand strategy is that the acquisition of defensive capabilities can be destabilizing; this point was made as early as Thucydides, when the Spartans realized the risks posed by Pericles’ call to strengthen the walls protecting Athens. Since defenses neutralize capabilities—including nuclear capabilities—they can trigger offense-defense arms races. The counterintuitive result is that a certain degree of mutual vulnerability may strengthen global and regional stability.

The question is “how much mutual vulnerability and with respect to whom?” How does it all play politically given the ease with which politicians can appeal to the apparent—but potentially misleading--safety of stronger defenses? And particularly against states like North Korea?

The Obama administration’s take on these questions is contained in the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which committed to the political compromise of costly—and in our view largely unnecessary—protection of the American homeland from North Korean and Iranian strikes. In addition to the technical barriers to such capabilities and their prohibitive cost, they complicate strategic relations with both Russia and China, who inevitably will see them as an effort to degrade their capabilities as well. In the end, the extent of these deployments will be a political as much as strategic issue.

But North Korean behavior will be a driver as well. The reason why Pyongyang’s “satellite” launches are so significant is because of the portability of the technology to the development of an ICBM capability. If evidence of a drive to miniaturization is evident—as some have suggested it already is—the political balance will be tilted toward greater spending on these systems. Beijing and Moscow need to think hard about this fact; the DPRK poses strategic challenges to them as well.

When we start talking about regional missile defenses, it is hard to hide entirely behind the North Korean threat; the China issue is necessarily joined as well. The case for regional missile defenses is that they assure that US force projection is credible in the face of anti-access, area denial (AA/AD) strategies on the part of both China and North Korea. We are not wild about these forces either; they can have similar effects on the offense/defense balance. But they do play a role in maintaining the credibility of conventional forces in a context in which a nuclear deterrent always runs the risk of being less-than-fully credible.

Roberts does not fully answer the question of “how much is enough,” but his tone is cautious. He closes his discussion with two questions; they are posed with respect to Japan—where they are more important given the recent decision to update the defense guidelines—but as we have noted in recent reviews (here and here) they are germane to South Korea as well.

The first is what role the advanced interceptor should play when it becomes available later in the decade. At a recent BMD conference in Warsaw, Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security provided a succinct summary of the current state of play that is worth quoting at length:

“Japan has acquired a layered integrated BMD system that includes Aegis BMD ships with Standard Missile 3 interceptors, Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) fire units, early warning radars, and a command and control system. We also worked cooperatively to deploy a forward-based X-band radar in Japan. At their October 3, 2013, “2+2 meeting, U.S. and Japanese foreign and defense ministers confirmed their intention to designate the Air Self-Defense Force base at Kyogamisaki as the deployment site for a second AN/TPY-2 radar (X-band radar) system that will further enhance the defense of our two countries.” She goes on to note US interest in working with South Korea to strengthen its capabilities as well.

But Japan and the US are now working jointly on the development of a next-generation SM-3 interceptor, called the Block IIA. As Roberts notes, this will give Japan’s missile defenses greater reach but also raise the China question in spades; this is not just a North Korea issue. Such deployments “will generate concern in China about the credibility of its ability to put at risk U.S. bases in Japan, but also concern in Japan and the United States about the conditions under which China might consider attacks on Japan.”

The second question is how Japan’s missile defenses relate to conventional force projection in the face of China's anti-access, area denial efforts. The AirSea Battle concept sees a role for allied missile defenses, but this touches on an issue that Roberts does not raise directly: whether and how the Abe administration will decide to chip away at restraints on Japan’s capacity to act as “normal country” in its alliance relations with the US. Outright constitutional revision of Article 9 currently appears off the table. But the administration has not hidden its desire to expand the ability of Japan to engage in cooperation and support operations for the US, including with respect to missile defense in the case of attacks on the US or American assets in the region. We close again with China; Beijing needs to think hard about how North Korea—as well as its own actions—are affecting these subtle but potentially destabilizing features of Japan’s defense posture.

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