Can New U.S. Missiles in Asia Deter China and Increase Security on the Korean Peninsula?
Following this summer’s demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton stated the need to deploy treaty-banned missiles to Asia. Proponents of deploying INF-prohibited medium- and intermediate-range theater-based missiles in the Pacific focus on the need to address the growing imbalance of conventional capabilities between China and the United States and its allies. However, deploying new, previously banned missiles may complicate Washington’s ability to accomplish its two major foreign policy objectives in Asia: balancing China and curtailing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear programs.
Deploying intermediate-range missiles in the Pacific is one way of addressing the “strike gap” in capabilities between U.S.-allied forces and China. This would enable U.S. power projection in times of crisis and provide a more flexible and cost-effective deterrent. But despite the operational benefits of these missiles, certain missions, capabilities, and basing options could further magnify North Korean insecurity, heightening crisis instability not just with Beijing but with Pyongyang, too. As a result, new missiles could amplify risks of first use by North Korea and give it additional incentives to produce more missiles, thereby impeding the goal of advancing regional security through negotiations. Acknowledging certain North Korean security concerns may offer some deployment options that bolster conventional deterrence vis-à-vis China while managing risk with a nuclear North Korea.
Prioritizing Objectives Vis-à-Vis China and North Korea
Why should the United States restrain itself from countering China in order to accommodate another adversary? In short, because unilateral North Korean disarmament is unlikely. As the North’s Korean Central News Agency stated this summer, Pyongyang will never trade its “strategic security” for sanctions relief. The United States, as a result, may have to entertain self-binding measures to avoid a net deterioration in regional security. Reducing the threat of North Korea’s capabilities through arms control — in the form of caps and possibly reductions of its nuclear and long-range missile capabilities — would be a feasible and strategically sound objective. It could reduce risk, buttress strategic stability, and stem proliferation in Northeast Asia. But regardless of the objective of negotiations, if North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, an American deployment of new missiles could amplify strategic risks and arms race instability with North Korea.
Restraint toward North Korea need not critically hamper U.S. efforts to compete with China. While Beijing holds advantages in the conventional theater balance with Washington, the balance strongly favors Washington over Pyongyang. Moreover, in considering missile deployments, the United States has a myriad of capability, basing, and mission options that can effectively address U.S.-Chinese capability gaps without further undermining North Korea’s confidence in its own security. Overall, there is a strategic case for competition with China on the one hand, and arms control with Pyongyang on the other.
The Value of Missiles in Adversary Strategies
Considering China’s favorable economic trajectory and its political will to compete in areas related to its “core interests,” it would be unwise to attempt to compete with China’s missile deployments symmetrically. A more effective and prudent approach would be to counter not its missiles, but its strategy — in which missiles play a considerable role. The same should be said for North Korea.
Conventional missiles are a cost-efficient means of maintaining a balance of power vis-à-vis a U.S. military that projects air- and sea-based precision strike systems into the region. China’s land-based conventional ballistic- and cruise-missile systems form the bedrock of this “counter-intervention” strategy. Embedded in this strategy is the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) concept that holds at risk key U.S. assets that could respond to regional contingencies. As an asymmetric response to superior U.S. conventional military power, it is unlikely that China will bind itself to a revised INF Treaty that nullifies these advantages. Moreover, China’s geography as well as its missile production and development expertise position it favorably to compete with the United States in the missile realm, representing a unique military advantage that China will be disinclined to subject to arms control.
Similarly, it is hard to believe that North Korea would ever submit to U.S. demands to abandon all of its nuclear- and conventionally-armed medium-range missiles. This is because Pyongyang’s missile inventory can hold at risk key U.S. bases in Japan that would serve as major platforms for a warfighting campaign on the Peninsula. From North Korea’s point of view, such capabilities are key deterrents to aggression of a superior constellation of U.S.-allied military power. Even so, arms control with Washington would still be in Pyongyang’s interest as part of a broader deal enabling the injection of economic capital and ending diplomatic isolation in exchange for restrictions on its missile programs. From Washington’s perspective, the goal of negotiations should be to limit the utility of North Korea’s missile program to deterrence, and not coercion.
Deploying Missiles in Japan Could Magnify North Korean Insecurity
Analysts have outlined the enormous operational benefits that INF-banned missiles could offer the United States in potential conflict scenarios with China. Unlike the long-range strike portfolio of the current joint force, ground-based missiles are extremely survivable, responsive, hosted by much cheaper platforms, and have deep magazines. Deploying missiles in Japan would provide an ideal location for responding to China’s A2/AD capabilities because it is the most politically viable basing option, can range a variety of targets in China, and can host cheaper missiles.
However, missile deployments to Japan that could range strategic targets in North Korea would nullify attempts to negotiate détente and arms reductions with Pyongyang. As North Korea develops increasingly sophisticated missiles, voices in Japan are calling for offensive strike assets to bolster deterrence by retaliation. Short-range anti-ship missiles based in mainland Japan could contribute to warfighting capabilities by securing rear support in a North Korea contingency by denying most of the East Sea/Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea. Deployment of medium-range missiles could offer significant preemptive strike capabilities on targets such as North Korean intermediate-range missiles that are located near China’s border with North Korea. These operational advantages would counter North Korea’s solid-fuel missiles and transporter-erector launchers, which are harder to deny due to quicker launch times. Despite the difficulties of locating and destroying mobile missiles and hardened targets in mountainous terrain, these new missiles could more accurately strike critical targets such as North Korean leadership and command and control facilities.
Even if the primary impetus for deployment is to counter China, missiles deployed in Japan will be perceived as capabilities that can threaten North Korea. This could empower hardliners in Pyongyang already critical of negotiations with Washington and justify a continued arms buildup to the North Korean populace. This dilemma presents a question of trade-offs: what would more effectively enhance deterrence and reduce risk — deploying missiles to Japan or arms control with North Korea?
Threats to Stability and Crisis Management
A goal of U.S.-North Korean arms control is to improve structural stability and crisis management. Yet new missiles could severely amplify risks of nuclear first use by Pyongyang and arms-racing instability — both of which negotiations can potentially ameliorate. If Pyongyang seeks a deterrent from invasion or a disarming first strike, deploying missiles with this capability increases the incentive for Pyongyang to strike first in a crisis and to respond with quantitative and qualitative missile improvements in peacetime. The United States cannot expect to negotiate disarmament while taking steps that exacerbate North Korean insecurity.
To bolster stability in a crisis, parties must seek capabilities that do three things: deter conventional attack, minimize vulnerability to a surprise attack, and reassure an adversary of no surprise attack. This is problematic because Pyongyang has explicitly stated fears of an American disarming preemptive strike. To counter this threat, North Korea stated in a 2013 law that it would escalate to the nuclear domain in response to a conventional first strike, and has even threatened preemptive nuclear strikes in the face of imminent U.S. aggression. North Korea makes such statements to fulfill the first criterion of deterring conventional attack, but must achieve the second criterion of minimizing vulnerability to surprise attack by maintaining its conventional and nuclear forces on high alert. Basing missiles in Japan would complicate Washington’s ability to address the third criterion of reassuring an adversary of no surprise attack, as missiles in theater that could strike critical peninsular targets in minutes would exacerbate a major threat to North Korea’s smaller and less survivable missile and nuclear forces.
Basing missiles in mainland Japan also complicates signaling to multiple adversaries in crises and thereby intensifies risks of an adversary first strike. Compared to other options in the U.S. strike portfolio, ground-based ballistic missiles offer survivability and responsiveness. Responsiveness, in particular, is lacking in the Asia-Pacific, where the United States relies primarily on the ability to project power through slower air and naval strike capabilities. If missiles are only deployed to the theater in a crisis, there remains a critical gap in responsiveness to budding crises, and missile survivability is limited. On the other hand, basing missiles in theater would increase deterrence but carry greater risk of adversary conventional or nuclear first use. Ground-based ballistic missiles are poor at signaling restraint in a crisis because, in order to hedge against a preemptive strike, they must quickly disperse, signaling a first strike of one’s own. This dynamic is especially destabilizing when the inferior party (North Korea) is postured to employ nuclear weapons to preempt a disarming first strike. Measures taken to reassure Pyongyang, such as basing missiles in the open, would only increase vulnerability to a conventional first strike from Beijing. Is the United States willing to accept that risk?
Between Allies: Operational Risks of Deploying New Missiles
Alliance management is critical to address not only risks emanating from the conventional force balance between U.S.-allied forces and China, but risks that arise from imbalances within alliances. The alliance security dilemma encompasses a dual risk of entrapment and abandonment. Japan’s Constitution restricts its acquisition of offensive capabilities, thereby significantly increasing its dependence on the United States for deterrence. By committing oneself too tightly to an ally, one may end up entrapped in a conflict over which one holds no critical interest. Alternatively, by overly distancing oneself from an ally, one risks abandonment in a moment of crisis. The risk spectrum of this dilemma influences operational control dynamics and could pose additional risks to escalation control and undermine the added deterrence sought by these capabilities in the first place.
If the United States and its basing ally agree to dual-key arrangement, both parties must agree upon weapon use. Under such an arrangement between Washington and Tokyo, there may be scenarios where one ally stands down, undermining missile deterrence value. Tokyo may deploy new missiles primarily to deter Chinese encroachment in the East Sea/Sea of Japan, but Washington may seek to utilize them to deter encroachment on Taiwan. Dual use would open up the risk of Tokyo abandoning Washington because intervening in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could open up the Japanese homeland to targeting by Chinese missiles – an escalation risk that Japan would seek to avoid.
Alternatively, China’s gray-zone tactics in the East Sea/Sea of Japan complicate alliance planning to respond to Chinese grey-area transgression near islands over which the United States holds no critical interest. Even if Japan possessed operational control, a Japanese response could be restrained without U.S. consent since the United States is responsible for most intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that guide missiles to their targets. Such an unequal arrangement may be undesirable for Tokyo, especially because the strike gap between Japan and China concerns the Japanese homeland — not the U.S. homeland. In this way, the gap in interests between allies could raise the threshold for employment and thus preclude the deterrence value of new missiles.
Alternatives That Counter China While Reducing Risk with North Korea
It is worthwhile to consider options for missile deployments that address growing Chinese capabilities yet reduce risk of upending policy objectives on the Korean Peninsula. Refraining from deploying missiles on mainland Japan that could range North Korean targets could reassure North Korea and aid in negotiating a cap or reduction of its long-range missiles and nuclear assets. Deploying short-range missiles on the Ryukyus along the first island chain has proximity benefits, making the missiles more responsive, cheaper, and out of range of many North Korean targets. However, these must be complemented with longer-range missiles that can hold at risk key targets inside China.
An alternative option prioritizes cost-imposition by holding at risk key assets deep inside China, imploring Beijing to invest more in expensive missile defense rather than offensive systems. For example, the U.S.-Japan alliance could jointly develop a land-attack cruise missile with a range of 1,000 to 1,500 kilometers to offset the current strike gap with China. If deployed along the southwest island chain, it would possess neither the range nor the flight time to threaten North Korea with a preemptive strike. Alternatively, anti-ship ballistic missiles could both reduce the threat to critical North Korean land-based targets. They would also complicate an amphibious invasion of Taiwan while placing the burden of escalation on China to strike land targets first.
Another approach addresses the People’s Liberation Army’s substantial air superiority relative to Taiwan. Although it could provoke a hostile reaction from Beijing, Washington and Taipei could, in response to the military imbalance, field hundreds of medium-range ballistic missiles on Taiwan and the southwest island chain aimed at China’s own air base infrastructure. Others have proposed long-range “sniping capabilities” that complement the joint force by quickly striking a range of heavily defended or moving targets — air bases, air defenses, command posts, and missiles on the launch pad. Deploying intermediate-range missiles in Guam and Australia are also more politically viable solutions, though Guam’s small area would reduce missile survivability benefits, and much of China is out of range of intermediate-range ballistic missiles based in Australia.
Balancing Objectives and Allied Interests
Basing missiles in Japan may complicate Washington’s ability to pursue a regional security strategy that reconciles the interests of its many allies. Japan’s defense minister claimed last week that North Korea is developing warheads that can penetrate Japan’s Aegis missile defense systems. Japanese experts have increased calls for counterforce strike assets as North Korea has been advancing its ballistic missile capabilities. Moreover, Seoul’s withdrawal from the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which facilitated the streamlined sharing of crucial real-time intelligence on North Korean missiles, will intensify calls from the Japanese right to acquire more offensive capabilities to deter North Korea. But negotiations with North Korea, if pursued with reasonable patience, could obviate a security dilemma.
Efforts to adapt the U.S. alliance network to a new strategic reality must first entail a clear understanding of that reality, and avoid prematurely fueling an arms race. Tokyo’s offensive strike capabilities would further inhibit a cohesive approach to regional security among Washington’s key allies, especially if Tokyo acquires new capabilities that are seen in Seoul as hindering the peace and disarmament process on the Peninsula. An effective regional strategy must balance objectives of disarmament and non-proliferation with those of deterrence and strategic stability. Whether or not arms control with North Korea increases allied security in Asia, the United States and its allies must be prudent in deploying INF-banned missiles to minimize risks to strategic stability with a mercurial North Korea.
A prudent step while negotiating with North Korea is to continue to invest primarily in ballistic missile defense in Japan and base new, intermediate-range missiles further south of the Korean Peninsula near the Ryukyu Islands or elsewhere in the region. This would deter strikes to U.S. bases in Japan, counter China’s A2/AD strategy in a myriad of potential conflict scenarios, and minimize strategic risks with a nuclear North Korea — all while maintaining a path toward negotiating denuclearization. In analyzing the trade-offs, policymakers must consider how new missile deployment intended to deter China may complicate other objectives to augment security on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.
Joshua Nezam is a James A. Kelly Non-resident Research Fellow at Pacific Forum and a consultant contracted to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, where he leads unclassified workshops on cultural, historical, political, and security issues on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. Joshua previously completed a Boren National Security Fellowship in Seoul and holds advanced degrees in international affairs from both American University in Washington and Korea University in Seoul.