December 07, 2012

Eyes on Korea: Navies Ready for Missile Shootdown if Test Threatens Allies

North Korea's potential test shot of a long range missile is worrisome enough in itself, but experts and military strategists are also concerned about what it might spell for the future of the notoriously isolated and unpredictable country.

The U.S. Navy and its allies have positioned ships and other assets to track — and possibly destroy — a test missile from North Korea if it does launch in the coming weeks.

Following North Korea's failed launch earlier this year, Western powers worry this new move would put North Korea one step further to its capability to launch or sell nuclear weapons materials.

A department of defense spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about the U.S. planning or response.

"We stand ready, however, to defend U.S. territory, our allies and our national interests," Pentagon spokeswoman Army Maj. Catherine Wilkinson tells U.S. News. "We will continue to evaluate our force posture and make changes as needed to fulfill our commitments."

The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet told reporters on Thursday the U.S. has positioned its assets in anticipation of the advances the communist dictatorship has made in recent years.

"They have progressively gained better technology over time, through a number of methods over a number of years and decades," says Adm. Samuel Locklear. "To the degree that they will be more successful in such a short period of time, I can't assess that."

The U.S. ships are capable of "participating in ballistic missile defense," he says, and will be positioned for that role.

Warships equipped with the advanced Aegis Combat System are among the only countermeasures to a long-range missile. The South Korean navy used this system to successfully track a North Korean missile in 2009, and the U.S. Navy conducted a joint exercise in 2010 that shot down a test missile. An Aegis-equipped U.S. ship also hit a dying spy satellite before it reentered Earth's atmosphere in 2008.

The latest Navy maneuvers serve two purposes, Locklear says. They help the U.S. understand "what's going on," and help gather intelligence on the notoriously reclusive North Korean missile capabilities.

"What kind is it? What is it about? Where does it go?" Locklear added of any potential missile launch test. "Who does it threaten? Where do the parts of that that don't go where [North Korea wants] it to go, where to they go? And what are the consequences of that?"

The U.S. Navy continues to keep a "very close" eye on the situation, he says.

But some observers think there's no bite behind Pyongyang's bark.

"It will be a repeat of April," says Dr. Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. "With the exception that if North Korea fails this time, it won't be embarrassing because they're already failed in grand fashion while the world was watching."

The missile North Korea launched earlier this year broke up a few moments after it took off and fell into the Yellow Sea.

It was, however, a critical piece in the North Korean nuclear program. Pyongyang successfully detonated a nearly 2 kiloton nuclear warhead in 2006, which is "successful enough" for a nuclear weapon, says Cronin.

It is unlikely the U.S. would shoot down a missile after launch, he adds. Japan, however, might use one of its missile killing Aegis cruisers to knock down a North Korean missile if it threatens any urban populations, he says. The same would be true in the unlikely situation that one of the missiles heads toward a U.S. Navy ship.

"I'm sure that's what Admiral Locklear was suggesting yesterday," Cronin says. "We're putting together the intelligence, surveillance, [and] reconnaissance preparing for our missile defense capabilities on shore and on the sea with Japan and South Korea so that we can have the best shot at shooting it down, or certainly tracking it in the more likely case."

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, whose term could expire in a matter of days following an election, ordered Japanese defense forces to intercept any missile or debris from North Korea that heads toward Japan, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The Department of State threatened international action if North Korea proceeds with this "highly provocative act," but did not specify the response.

"If the DPRK proceeds with a launch, we expect the international community to take a strong public stand," a spokesman tells U.S. News.

"The United States will continue to coordinate closely with our Six-Party partners and other key allies and partners on next steps," the spokesman says of the series of meetings between both Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the U.S. "Our message to North Korea has been very clear: the only way out of isolation is to refrain from actions that threaten the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, and to comply fully with its commitments and international obligations. "