Photo by US Missile Defense Agency

Photo by US Missile Defense Agency

Time for a shield wall?

12 July 2017

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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.

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.

To read the entire article by Ben Zala, visit the APPS Policy Forum website.

Photo by US Missile Defense Agency

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