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Combine US, S. Korean Missile Systems to Boost Defense Against North Korea, Say Experts

South Korea should integrate its missile defense system with that of the U.S. to maximize the combined capabilities

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Defense, North, US, S. Korean
People watch a TV showing a news program reporting North Korea's missile launch, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, May 5, 2019. VOA

South Korea should integrate its missile defense system with that of the U.S. to maximize the combined capabilities to counter a potential incoming flight of North Korea’s missiles across the border, experts said in the wake of Pyongyang’s two missile launches in early May.

South Korea’s missile defense system and the U.S. antimissile defense system deployed in South Korea are coordinated but operate independently.

“The whole system would work better if it was fully integrated, if it was a completely combined operation,” said Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency who is now a professor at Angelo State University in Texas.

Why not integrate systems?

The lack of integration is rooted in regional history. The South Korean government, whether it was conservative or liberal, never merged its system with the U.S. system for political reasons, in part, because integrating it would mean joining the U.S. missile defense alliance in the region that includes Japan, South Korea’s colonial adversary toward which South Korea’s public sentiment has been historically antagonistic, according to Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. research center.

 Defense, North, US, S. Korean
FILE – President Donald Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in before the Northeast Asia Security dinner at the US Consulate General in Hamburg, Germany, July 6, 2017. VOA

Streamlining the command and control of the two missile defense systems with autonomous command and control would cut the time needed to analyze data, share information, and cue the proper system for targeting and intercepting an incoming missile, according to David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel and current fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

On May 17, the Pentagon announced the U.S. had approved a $314 million sale of air defense missiles to South Korea.

South Korea’s missile defense system, termed the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), includes Aegis and Patriot systems, and is designed to protect South Korea from missiles that fly at different altitudes and distance by detecting, tracking and intercepting incoming missiles in the air. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which currently falls under the U.S. missile defense system, is also deployed in South Korea.

Aegis, a sea-based missile defense system, and THAAD are area defense weapons that have the capabilities to defend wide areas against missiles that fly high altitudes. And, the Patriot system, known as pointed defense weapons, can intercept missiles directed against smaller areas such as air base, according to Maxwell.

No perfect defense

But they don’t provide a perfect defense that prevents missiles from getting through, he added.

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“There’s no impenetrable shield,” Maxwell said. “There [is] always going to be a gap, a seam, a weakness, that the enemy is always trying to exploit and defenders are always trying to fix and find a better way. This is constantly a game of where capabilities continue to evolve.”

This was part of what was happening when North Korea tested a new missile on May 4 that is considered to be similar to the Russian Iskander, a nuclear-capable missile that flies lower than the short-range ballistic missiles North Korea tested before.

“A ballistic missile leaves the earth’s atmosphere and glides back down,” Bechtol said. “This [test] missile does not, as far as I can tell, leave the Earth’s atmosphere. It operates more like a cruise missile than a ballistic missile.”

A cruise missile flies on a relatively straight line and at a lower altitude than a ballistic missile, which arcs up before curving down toward a target.

Russian-like missile poses challenges

Experts said if the new missile is modeled after the Iskander, it could pose multiple challenges and could exploit gaps in the existing missile-defense coverage in South Korea.

 Defense, North, US, S. Korean
Iskander Trajectory Options. VOA

The new missile’s “flattened flight path” toward a target “makes it difficult to intercept” with current defense systems, said Michael Elleman, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The North Korean version of the Iskander does not fly higher than 50 kilometers and can travel a ground distance as far as 280 kilometers, according to Elleman.

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But THAAD and the Aegis SM-3 interceptor operate at an altitude above 50 kilometers, and the Patriot system’s effective intercepting range is at an altitude of about 25 to 30 kilometers with the Patriot variant PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) interceptor extending its flight to an altitude of about 40 kilometers.

That leaves “a gap in interceptor coverage” of at least 10 kilometers between the missile defense systems that operate at roughly 40 to 50 kilometers, said Ellemen. “The Iskander spends most of its flight path in this gap, making it difficult to intercept.”

Defense, North, US, S. Korean
THAAD vs. DPRK Iskander. VOA

 

The Iskander can fly at a high speed, presenting another challenge for the current missile defense system.

Bennett said, “The Iskander flies perhaps 20-25 percent faster than the Scud,” a series of tactical ballistic missiles that could travel five times the speed of sound, potentially capable of reaching South Korea in about five minutes, Bennett said.

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“THAAD and the SM-3 on the Aegis [equipped] ships should be able to handle this speed. [But] the Iskander flies low, [a] potential challenge for THAAD and the SM-3,” he added.

Most accurate North Korean missile

The Iskander can be mounted on mobile launch platforms, meaning it can be moved and fired quickly.

Defense, North, US, S. Korean
FILE – This undated file photo provided by Russian Defense Ministry official website Sept. 19, 2017, shows a Russian Iskander-K missile launched during a military exercise at a training ground at the Luzhsky Range, near St. Petersburg, Russia. VOA

“It’s a solid fuel missile,” Bechtol said, explaining that the fuel can be loaded ahead of launch “and moved much more quickly than liquid-fuel missiles.” The latter need fueling just before launch.

The Iskander’s maneuverability also makes it difficult for THAAD, Aegis SM-3, and the Patriot system to intercept.

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“The Iskander has fins mounted at the back of the missile, which allow it to maneuver during the entire flight,” Ellemen explained. “This makes it much more difficult to predict an intercept location and launches the interceptor on the optimal path for an engagement resulting in destruction of the threat.”

Bechtol said, “It would be the most accurate missile the North Koreans have ever had, so accurate that they could actually fire out … [and] target barracks, flight lines for aircraft, headquarter buildings.”

Defense, North, US, S. Korean
THAAD vs. DPRK Iskander. VOA

With the missile test, “the North Koreans are showing us that they have a missile [with which] they can accurately target Osan Air Base or Camp Humphreys in a very real, in a very dangerous way,” Bechtol said, citing American installations in South Korea.

“They were able to keep in accordance with the agreement they made with [President Donald] Trump, and at the same time, threaten the United States and South Korea in a very compelling way,” he added.

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When the Pyongyang government began talks with Washington last year, it pledged to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Complicated political situation

Merging South Korean and U.S. missile defense systems could be hampered by the political situation in South Korea, according to Maxwell. Public attitudes have changed little since 2017, when hundreds of South Korean citizens protested the installation of THAAD at a U.S. military south of Seoul.

Defense, North, US, S. Korean
FILE – People scuffle with riot police during a protest opposing the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Seongju, South Korea, Sept. 7, 2017. VOA

“I just don’t see the political will for that in South Korea among majority of the people or the current rule and government,” Maxwell said.

Bennett said a North Korean missile that slipped under defense systems could devastate the peninsula, depending on the type of warhead it carried, “… which in theory could be conventional, nuclear or chemical,” he said. “So the defense would turn to passive defense: protecting people in shelters with masks and protective clothing.”

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According to Maxwell, a variant of the Patriot interceptor, the PACT 3 Guidance Enhanced Missile (GEM-T) under the U.S. missile defense system in South Korea is better able “to defeat tactical ballistic missiles and aircraft and cruise missiles” and could potentially intercept the new kind of missile North Korea tested. (VOA)

Next Story

Huawei Founder Ren Zhengfei: Company Can Withstand Increased US Pressure

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that he expects the U.S. to escalate its crackdown on Huawei.

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Huawei
A Huawei company logo at Shenzhen International Airport in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China. VOA

By Joyce Huang

Despite the U.S.-China trade deal signed last week, the two countries appear headed for more confrontation, especially over high science and technology.

One of China’s highest-profile tech executives, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on Tuesday that he expects the U.S. to escalate its crackdown on Huawei. But he vowed that the world leader in building 5G networks is prepared to withstand further restrictions on its foreign markets and suppliers.

Analysts say his remarks suggest that the Chinese may be ready to directly confront Americans in the global competition for high-tech advancements, which are seen at the core of trade frictions.

 Huawei
Ren Zhengfei, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Huawei Technologies gestures during a session at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. VOA

Tech war is on

“He [Ren] is fully aware that the tech competition between the U.S. and China will escalate. The U.S. has no plan to cut China some slack simply because they have just signed the Phase 1 deal. Both are now entering the battleground of their tech disputes,” said Lin Tsung-nan, professor of electrical engineering at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Beijing’s critics say Huawei acts as a virtual arm of the Chinese government, benefitting from favorable policies and funding that have sped its expansion around the world. They warn countries that allow Huawei to build their new wireless data networks that they are giving Beijing’s authoritarian government enormous influence over their security. Instead, U.S. officials argue, countries should trust American, European, Korean and other companies.

Provisions in the U.S.-China Phase 1 trade agreement aim to root out Chinese state policies that encourage intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. However the deal leaves open questions about enforcement. Many, including Huawei chief Ren, remain skeptical that the countries will reach an agreement on such issues.

Speaking to the audience in Davos, Ren said he believes the United States will escalate its crackdown on Huawei, but that the impact will be minimal as the company has adapted to restrictions imposed since last year.

Huawei and its 46 affiliates were targeted in 2019 after the U.S. government concluded that the company has long engaged in activities contrary to U.S. national security. Ren’s daughter, Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, is fighting an extradition case in Canada stemming from allegations she committed fraud by lying about Huawei’s relationship with an affiliate doing business in Iran.

Huawei
Richard Yu (Yu Chengdong), head of Huawei’s consumer business Group, speaks on stage during a presentation to reveal Huawei’s latest smartphones “Mate 30” and “Mate 30 Pro” in Munich, southern Germany. VOA

Huawei’s Plan B

Analysts have mixed views about the long-term impact of the blacklisting on Huawei. Ren said he is optimistic because Huawei has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in its own core technology over the past few years, including chips and software. Last year, the company released its own operating system, called HarmonyOS, though, so far, it hasn’t been installed in any of the company’s smartphones.

It has also released a flagship smartphone, the Mate 30, without licensed Google Android software. Sales in China have been in line with expectations, although its global sales target of 20 million units is yet to be met.

But Professor Lin said the ultimate challenge facing Huawei lies ahead.

“The real test will come after the U.S. completely cuts off [Huawei’s] access to American technology and relevant exchanges. Huawei will then have to prove if its products, manufactured based on its so-called plan B, will continue to be competitive in overseas markets,” the professor said.

More tech restrictions

After having restricted Huawei’s access to American technology, the United States is reportedly looking to introduce a stricter rule that could block Huawei’s access to an increased number of foreign-made goods.

Media reports said the United States plans, among other things, to force Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chipmaker, to limit its supplies of 14 nanometer chips to Huawei.

Washington is also lobbying other countries, such as Britain and Germany, to bar Huawei — which it accuses of spying for the Chinese government — from the buildup of their next-generation mobile networks known as 5G.

Whether U.S. allies will be persuaded to block Huawei from building their 5G networks remains uncertain, but Lin said the stakes in the standoff are clear.

“If China succeeds in using Huawei to dominate [the global 5G network], the free world will gradually fall into China’s high-tech iron curtain. That’s why the U.S. has turned aggressive in blocking Huawei, which has strived after having had copied code from Cisco’s [router software] technology a decade ago,” Lin said.

Escalating tensions

Huawei
Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou leaves her Vancouver home with her security detail for an extradition hearing in British Columbia Supreme Court. VOA

Song Hong at the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said he’s worried the U.S. may widen its target to include more Chinese tech firms.

But he said Beijing is adapting to the new reality by gradually cutting its dependence on the U.S. technology.

“China has greatly strengthened its tech capabilities. I think Huawei’s [Ren] speaks on behalf of most Chinese businesses. That is, if you try to block me, I have no choice but to work to find other solutions,” he said.

An executive from China’s tech sector, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity, said he’s not worried that the U.S.-China tech war will escalate. But he said China should respond to U.S. concerns.

“The U.S. has made a great contribution [to the world’s tech development] and now come up with some requests. I find that reasonable, right? I think China, as a responsible country, should respect and communicate well [with the U.S.] on a reasonable basis,” he said.

Warning from Meng’s case

While tech executives look at how the long-term competition between the two countries will play out, the fate of Meng — the daughter of Huawei’s founder — will impact relations in the short term. Canada has begun week-long court hearings to determine whether to extradite Meng to the United States to stand trial on fraud charges linked to the alleged violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

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Meng, who was arrested in late 2018 in Canada, denies any wrongdoing.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, said Lin of National Taiwan University, the United States has succeeded in sending a warning to those who have harmed or plan to go against U.S. tech interests.  (VOA)