North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has raised the possibility of another round of talks with US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters/KCNA

The recent olive branch extended by North Korea does not defuse Northeast Asia’s security crisis; the region remains in the midst of a dual missile and anti-missile defense race. Many US military leaders see North Korea’s Winter Olympics participation as nothing more than a breathing space, buying dictator Kim Jong-un extra time to work up his missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Regional uncertainties were underscored by one sentence uttered on New Year’s Day by Kim: “The [North Korean] nuclear-weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.” This stark reminder of Kim’s goal overshadows all future diplomacy.

Kim’s words, added to what had gone on before, have been a catalyst. Military assets from the United States and elsewhere have converged on the region. More precision-guided munitions designed to take out missiles and missile batteries prior to launch are pouring into the region. New air-to-air and surface-to-air systems capable of knocking out missiles moments after launch are also being deployed. So much is happening so quickly that it is hard to keep up.

In December, the South Korean army undertook several first-ever demonstrations of enhanced helicopter-based capabilities, involving live-fire exercises with Stinger and Hellfire missiles launched from AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters.

Amid nukes, helicopters may seem inconsequential, but it would be unwise to omit tactical assets from the big picture. Attack helicopters armed with air-to-air missiles impact aerial operations, and potentially set the stage for more varied missions including anti-missile duties once more sophisticated munitions become available. That list might include more compact, hypersonic weaponry which has been widely discussed.

Increasing Russian role

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in mid-December that he was going to withdraw Russian forces from Syria, but has increased Russia’s role at the same time. On January 4, a senior US Air Force officer speaking in Washington stated that 85% of Russia’s most advanced combat aircraft and crews had been cycled through Syrian skies, granting crews the opportunity to conduct active combat operations in “a joint environment” in Russia’s first “away game.”

This is relevant to what the Russian air force, and its compliment of land-based naval aviation units stationed in eastern Russia, are weighing as they watch the US and its allies take aim at North Korea. Because Russian and Chinese air forces took to the skies together over Northeast Asia almost at the same time as Putin was pulling the plug on Syria, the exercises suggest a more assertive role for both Chinese and Russian air power in the region.

To coordinate their response better “to a hostile third nation” intent upon using both manned and unmanned air power in or near the airspace of the two nations, a six-day series of exercises unfolded. These may indicate that China and Russia are exploring ways to impact US operations – if not intercede – on North Korea’s behalf.

The US has experienced numerous close flyovers of its aircraft carriers and other naval vessels in the Western Pacific by Russian combat aircraft. However, the new layer of air defense that North Korea lacks entirely on its own has enormous implications for US and allied military planners. The presence of Russian and Chinese aircraft in the area during any US operation against North Korea is a definite complicating factor.

The purpose and scope of Russian and Chinese joint exercises in December notwithstanding, questions remain about the number of Russian aircraft deployed in the region as Moscow reduces its Syrian footprint. Moreover, Beijing has been expanding and upgrading its undersea surveillance and submarine detection capabilities, indicating that it is as mindful of the US submarines lurking in the North Pacific as it is of the exercising of US military – most particularly stealth – aircraft that have irritated Pyongyang so greatly. All these represent wild cards for US defense planners focusing on North Korea.

Anti-missile defense interest

Meanwhile, attention being paid to anti-missile defense is soaring. Theodore Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist and missile-defense expert who has long served as one of the most credible and consistent reality checkers when it comes to the overall status of US missile defense systems, has raised new concerns. Postol is a reliable source for what many might often deem unwelcome news.

In an essay published in the December issue of Harper’s magazine,  Postol described a primary pillar of US missile defense, the US$40 billion Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system now deployed in Alaska and California, as “a flop.” Postol emphasized that “the GMD has failed 55% of the time since coming online in 2004” – incidentally contradicting US President Donald Trump, who pegged the interceptors’ success rate at 97%.

However, Postol suggests a way forward. Large, unmanned vehicles –dedicated anti-missile drones that (not to be confused with the large surveillance drones now stationed by the US at bases in Japan) – could constitute the basis for an effective, albeit unproven, form of missile defense, he opines.

“A fleet of airborne drones, equipped with fast-accelerating interceptors, may be the only way to reliably prevent a successful North Korean ICBM attack. Patrolling at high altitudes, these drones can stay aloft for 30 to 40 hours. Each can carry two anti-ICBM interceptors, which can also be used to shoot down satellite launches,” he wrote.

Postol points out that the US Missile Defense Agency and other US military organizations are actively pursuing drone-based programs for anti-missile purposes. He went on to state, “These drones have yet to be built, however, and are intended to be equipped with lasers that no one quite knows how to engineer. Given the urgency of the North Korean threat, we need a weapons system grounded in current technology rather than science fiction.”

Is Postol’s science-fiction assessment worth a closer look? Laser-equipped drones may seem exotic, but laser-equipped combat aircraft are frequently mentioned as a reality to be reckoned with. Given this trend, high-altitude, high-endurance drones that can linger in contested airspace, equipped with long-range hypersonic projectiles, other types of anti-missile interceptors and lasers may well be on the drawing board or even in the prototype phase.

On January 4, Defense News reported that a major US drone manufacturer, Aurora Flight Sciences, had announced a $48 million contract with the US Air Force to develop a new long-endurance drone despite the fact that the USAF seemed reluctant in the past to pursue this technology. Aurora’s Orion medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system can stay aloft for up to 100 hours with payloads weighing more than 1,000 pounds (about 450 kilograms), the company claims.

Drones may represent the Holy Grail of effective anti-missile systems in the near future, offering a degree of relief to Tokyo, which already has plans to deploy new Aegis Ashore batteries. However, there still look to be few effective ways of dealing with North Korea’s vast array of heavy artillery threatening Seoul and its environs. These assets could be used to respond to a pre-emptive US attack.

Despite all the above, one thing is clear: Trump prioritizes tactical rather than strategic advantages. He will say nothing about the cards he may be holding close to his chest now, but those cards could prove to be very surprising indeed.

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