The Pacific Arms Race

Just a few weeks ago, Japan successfully intercepted a ballistic missile over the Pacific Ocean. Facing a rising China — which had, before the Japanese test, conducted its unparalleled military buildup as a one-nation arms race — Japan has now moved decisively to defend itself. But the Japanese move may now accelerate, and engage other neighboring nations  in a growing and dangerous Pacific hemisphere arms race.

At least 31 nations possess ballistic missiles and to counter that growing threat nations like Japan are scurrying to build anti-missile shields.  However, more and better missile shields create a Hobson’s choice for nations that depend on their missile arsenals for strategic deterrence.  They must either build larger and more sophisticated — read expensive — missile fleets or abandon missiles for other ways to deter would-be adversaries.

On December 17, the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s JS Kongo (DDG-173), a guided missile destroyer, fired a US Standard SM-3 interceptor which quickly destroyed its ballistic missile target about 100 miles above the Hawaiian Islands.  The US Missile Defense Agency called the intercept a “major milestone” and Japan’s defense minister called the test “extremely significant.” 

Japan’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) program started in August 1998 after North Korea fired a missile over Japan.  Tokyo’s BMD efforts were accelerated in July 2005 after North Korea once again fired ballistic missiles toward Japan and in October 2006 when Pyongyang tested a plutonium-based atomic device.  Japan views these actions as a direct threat to her survival.

“The land of the Rising Sun” responded to Pyongyang’s threat by pouring billions of yen into missile defense.  The Japanese have purchased US-Aegis radar systems, launched spy satellites, and allowed the US to station an X-band radar on the island.  Tokyo has deployed 27 anti-missile US-made Patriot PAC-2 batteries and this year it began deploying the more capable Patriot PAC-3.  Much more is in the works.

More daunting for Japan’s neighbors is the fact that Tokyo’s BMD investments are linked to the US missile defense system.  In the Pacific the US boasts more than 20 ground-based interceptors, 18 sea-based missiles, hundreds of PAC-3 Patriots and intends to create a multilayered system with hundreds of interceptors to include other programs like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Airborne Laser (ABL).  These systems are guided by early warning satellites, radar complexes and more than a dozen Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers.

The growing US-Japanese missile shield seriously diminishes North Korea’s fledgling missile threat and the second order effect is to marginalize China’s strategic balance and perhaps even Russia’s. 

Pyongyang is believed to have more than 800 ballistic missiles, including a few which could potentially strike the US homeland.  Most are old Soviet-era Scuds and the communist state has developed a medium-range missile, the Nodong, and a long-range missile based on Scud technology, the Taepodong. 

North Korea sells ballistic missiles to nations like Iran, Syria, and Pakistan.  It also tests missiles and shakes its nuclear weapons program rattle to create regional tension that is used to leverage blackmail payments of food and fuel oil in exchange for empty disarmament promises.  Although soon to be deterred, it is unlikely Japan’s missile shield will persuade Pyongyang to abandon its misguided activities.

China’s reaction to Japan’s test was cautious.  “We hope the Japanese side will act in ways that help to safeguard regional peace and stability and that promote mutual trust between its nations in the area,” Qin Gang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.

Beijing’s primary “regional peace” concern is Taiwan.  The communist regime wants the break-away island nation back under its iron fist and intends to make that happen either by diplomatic coercion or military force. 

The Peoples Liberation Army has arrayed an impressive armada of short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan.  Should China exercise the military option then Japan’s BMD linked with the US’s fleet of Aegis cruisers could make that operation very expensive for the communists.

Beijing’s “stability” concern is that Japan’s BMD impacts the credibility of its small intercontinental ballistic missile fleet.  The Red Chinese have 20 nuclear-tipped, silo-based, liquid-fueled CSS-4 ICBMs which puts China at the bottom of the major-power table behind France. 

China is rebuilding credibility by modernizing its ICMB fleet, however. By 2010, Beijing will add the DF-31 ICBM which is a road-mobile, solid-propellant system and the JL-2, a submarine launched ballistic missile.  These strategic weapons will be augmented by new spy satellites, anti-spacecraft lasers and “information warfare units” that can attack western technologies.

China has launched its own missile shield project as well.  Beijing recently tested an interceptor missile that downed a high-flying reconnaissance plane.  Its spokesman claims, “We can intercept not only high-flying reconnaissance planes or missiles but also low-flying targets.”

Russia, both a European and Asian country, is impacted by BMD programs on both flanks.  President Vladimir Putin objects to a proposed US BMD system in Poland and the Czech Republic which is intended to defend against Iranian missiles much like Japan’s BMD is designed to counter North Korea.  But Putin and his generals claim the anti-Iran BMD is really intended to marginalize Russia’s fleet of nuclear missiles. In October, Japan officially rebuffed Russian calls for Tokyo to abandon its BMD as well.

Russia possesses 700 ICBMs and 3,000 nuclear warheads which could quickly overwhelm the combined anti-missile capabilities of the proposed anti-Iranian system, Japan’s emerging shield and the US’ BMD network.  Likely, Russia is concerned these shields will eventually be fine-tuned and expanded to deter its vast arsenal.

Russia is doing more than complaining about anti-missile shields, however.  It is building better missiles, warheads and beefing up its anti-missile shield. 

In mid-December, a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea test-fired a new ballistic missile which reportedly can elude anti-missile systems.   The Kremlin will be ready in January 2008 to operationally deploy a new multiple-warhead missile system equipped with Topol-M multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles.  This mobile missile can reach the US with a variety of weapons packages.

In August, Colonel General Alexander Zelin, commander of the Russian air force, announced activation of the first S-400 interceptors as part of Moscow’s improved missile defense.  The S-400 reportedly can reach out 250 miles and stop missiles with ranges greater than 2,000 miles.

Japan’s missile shield may not be directly responsible for China’s or Russia’s decision to expand missile arsenals and BMD systems.  Whatever the reason, these nations and others are investing in more sophisticated missiles that could ratchet-up global tension and further proliferation of ballistic missiles to other states and non-state actors.

Then again the presence of missile shields in places like Japan might convince rogues that the days of ballistic blackmail are over.  For larger countries like Russia and China, effective western BMD systems might convince them to see the futility of investing in another bottomless arms race.  Let’s hope for the later.