There are those who urge the US to shoot down North Korean missiles, even if they are only being used for testing. Whether it is either practical or possible for either the US, Japan or South Korea to shoot down the North’s test launches remains an open question. But there are still some important and practical steps that can, and should be taken. Most importantly, the US and its allies and friends should recover the missiles that are landing in the sea.
There are important tactical and policy reasons to recover North Korea’s missiles. It may be that some recovery efforts are underway already, but since none have been either announced or acknowledged, I am working under the assumption we have not done this.
The tactical reason to recover North Korea-launched ballistic missiles is to understand their capabilities and their potential as nuclear weapons platforms.
A lot has been written about the performance of North Korea’s missiles, but mostly the reported information comes from radar tracks and not from any physical evidence. For example, the North’s missiles, especially its long-range Huasong, has been reported to tumble during reentry, suggesting that North Korea has not mastered re-entry technology, or at least did not include the technology on its test platform. Recovery of a test vehicle might show what the possible problems are and provide some answers about the maturity of the North Korean program.
Another example concerns the accuracy of North Korea’s missiles. North Korea is the main missile and missile-industrial supplier of missiles to Iran, and we know that in the tactical theater Iran’s missiles perform very poorly. Recently Iran launched five missiles from Iranian territory intending to hit a certain ISIS target in northern Syria. Only one of the missiles got anywhere near the target.
We also know that when North Korea launches missiles, a fairly large number blow up on launch, or fail very early in their flight trajectory. This suggests, among other things, roughly built products with inferior internal mechanisms such as gyros and actuators that are needed to direct the missile from launch to target. While these tests and preparation for them are watched very closely by satellite, and the same goes for Iranian launches, the fact is that these images tell us something about their performance but not where there vulnerabilities are.
In 1998, many missile gyros were found in Iraq, hidden in waterproof plastic bags in the Tigris river. These gyros were Russian. Before that, in 1995, the Jordanians intercepted a shipment of 250 gyros and accelerometers going to Iraq, probably also from Russia. Are the same type of gyros today found in North Korean and Iranian missiles?
We do know that North Korea has an extensive technology acquisition program, mostly through illegal transfers. It is active in Russia and China, it is strongly supported by a large, clandestine Iranian acquisition network, and it has been detected in Europe, and in Asian countries outside of China including Japan (the cameras in North Korean Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are made in Japan).
And here is to be found the nub of the policy argument. Sorting out the North Korean network and identifying the foreign parts used in its program are vital steps in closing down these networks.
I know this first hand because I worked hard during the 1980s as head of the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration in closing down the USSR’s theft of Western technology and seeing to the identification and arrest of some of their go-betweens, who we called “Techno-bandits,” a term coined by Linda Melvern. No doubt there are plenty of Techno-bandits operating nowadays and helping North Korea and Iran, but few have been apprehended. It is time to identify them and energetically go after them. Doing this could significantly slow the North Korean program, even make it impossible for them to build a credible fleet of offensive missiles and nukes.
It is very important to be able to produce hard evidence in order to put pressure on possible suppliers and to encourage friends and allies to take down North Korea’s, and Iran’s, acquisition networks and incarcerate their middlemen and techno-operators. After all, people aiding and abetting these programs are criminals, and should be treated as such. Clearly, we have been asleep at the switch, with only a few intermediaries caught so far. And our friends in Europe have not caught anybody, which is a disgrace since it is a sure thing that Techno-bandits are operating on European soil.
Evidence is important for persuasion. I personally helped lead the effort following up on the scandalous sale of advanced Toshiba profiler machine tools to the Soviet Navy, helping to make their submarines far quieter by giving them the tools to make silent propellers for their subs. Japan was the prime source, and of course they said they did nothing and we were wrong. Prove it, they said. Luckily there was an important whistle-blower from a small Japanese trading company called Wako-Keoki who was on the spot in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and who had all the vital documentary information on a deception carried out by the machine tool division of the Japanese Toshiba Corporation and a cover up by Japan’s Customs officials.
We are already seeing the same sort of denials regarding the North Korean program. For example, when the New York Times reported that Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies discovered that the North Koreans were almost certainly using RD-250 liquid-fueled rocket engines produced by the Ukrainian company Uzmash, both the company itself and the Ukrainian government denied it was true. If such engines were involved, they alleged, the Russians must have supplied them.
Uzmash is a company that has been in considerable trouble since Russian and Ukrainian relations became hostile. Russia stopped buying its rocket engines, and Uzmash has tried to shift some of its business to building commercial buses, a rather less profitable undertaking. The company has bordered on bankruptcy, and laid off workers. Whether this made them a candidate for underground business deals is speculation, but recovery of the actual engine and its serial numbers would be very helpful in pursuing the case. Surprisingly, no one asked Uzmash if they were supplying Iran, or any other country in the Middle East, with rocket engines that could have been transferred to North Korea.
North Korea’s industrial capabilities are severely constrained, mainly because the country’s economy is quite marginal and it lacks much of the infrastructure needed to produce all the specialized components for manufacturing missiles unless critical parts are supplied from outside.
By recovering North Korea’s missiles, the necessary evidence can likely be acquired to shut down North Korea’s, and perhaps Iran’s, supplier networks. This should be a top priority for the Trump administration.