International relations, National security, Science and technology | Australia, Asia, East Asia

12 July 2017

Turning to a ballistic missile defence system as a way of protecting Australia from a North Korean attack is a bad idea that should never get off the ground, Benjamin Zala writes.

North Korea’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week has many concerned that the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is entering a new and dangerous phase. The Australian media has featured daily coverage of developments in the crisis including analysis of the possible threat to Australia.

The idea that North Korea’s nuclear program is now a problem for Australian defence policy stems from the fact that Pyongyang has made verbal threats in the past, its ICBM test puts the north of Australia within range of its missiles, and the crisis seems to be heating up which might make North Korea lash out in a “use it lose it” scenario.

While Australia is unlikely to be at the top of Pyongyang’s list of targets today, a future scenario in which a close military ally of the United States is hit (particularly one that is relatively sparsely populated) in an attempt to change the dynamics of a crisis is not impossible.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of this has led to increased discussion about relying on ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems in the event of the crisis turning hot. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd even stated publically that he has completely reversed his position on the issue from when he was in office arguing that it is time to start exploring BMD options for Australia. The current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s response to a journalist’s question about this over the weekend where he said that Australia is “working on missile defence” has elicited much excitement in some quarters.

However, there are three major problems with Australia relying on BMD to protect us from North Korean missiles. When all three are considered, it is clear that this is a non-starter for Australia.

More on this: North Korea is a nuclear litmus test

Firstly, there is an important distinction between ‘theatre’ and ‘national’ BMD systems. The former is designed to protect military forces deployed in a theatre of war or military installations and population centres that are located very close to an adversary’s missiles (as is the case for Seoul).

National BMD, meanwhile, is aimed at protecting cities and military installations from long-range missiles. This is what Australia would need to shoot down a North Korean ICBM aimed at Darwin or the joint US-Australian intelligence facility at Pine Gap.

Something akin to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system that the US has installed in South Korea recently can only hit short and medium range missiles. It would be useless in Australia. The potential to upgrade the Aegis defence system aboard the Hobart-class destroyers that Australia is currently building would have a similar capability – potentially useful for protecting Australian ships and even troops deployed abroad against shorter range missiles but useless for national BMD.

Acquiring a national BMD capability would be so prohibitively costly as to make it hardly worth considering. Only one country in the world is currently investing in a comparable system – the United States. Despite building up expertise in this area for decades, spending US$131 billion since the system properly got underway in 2002 (and almost US$190 billion since 1985), and conducting many tests in recent years, the US Missile Defense Agency has just celebrated its first successful ICBM intercept test.

For Australia, it would be many years and more money than the Defence Department could dream of being allocated before we had anything approximating the US system.

Secondly, even if Australia could catch-up quickly, the fact that the US – the leaders in the field of BMD technology by some margin – has only successfully intercepted an ICBM once should give Canberra pause for thought. And of course, there will always be limits on how realistic any BMD test can be. An adversary would tend not to give you advanced warning of the timing nor details of the range or intended target of a real missile launch in the event of a crisis. Could we really rely on such a system for the protection of major urban centres?

Recent research has uncovered that even in the event of a successful intercept of an incoming ICBM, the unintended consequences could be dramatic. We should not forget that BMD involves launching your own missile to knock out your adversary’s and what we view as fundamentally defensive weaponry can be viewed as having possible offensive uses by others.

Third, the development of BMD in and of itself has been one of the most controversial and, at the very least, problematic developments in relation to nuclear stability in recent years.

To put it simply, BMD undermines nuclear deterrence. If one side in a conflict has the ability to strike its adversary without being concerned about being on the receiving end of a retaliatory strike, then it may not be deterred from acting pre-emptively to gain an advantage.

If we do not want Pyongyang to panic and lash out, then it must have confidence that Washington is deterred from launching a pre-emptive strike. The US appears to be unconcerned by this and is pressing ahead with its BMD capabilities.

As Washington abandons the concept of mutual vulnerability as the lynchpin of nuclear stability, Australia must make some very careful choices. The country is already intimately involved in the US BMD system via Pine Gap which is used, amongst other things, to receive early warning satellite data on missile launches. Developing our own BMD capabilities will only deepen our involvement in a system that is making the Chinese and Russians very nervous, and for good reason.

BMD is expensive, almost impossible to test under conditions that approximate a real-world scenario, and most importantly, destabilising.

Pursuing a negotiated end to the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will be difficult with outcomes that are far from certain. Alternatively, accepting North Korea as a rational nuclear-armed actor that can be deterred from using such weapons is equally as psychologically uncomfortable and risky. Yet neither is anywhere near as foolhardy as turning to the ‘silver bullet’ of BMD. This applies to Australia as much as anyone else.

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