Why the United States shouldn’t rest easy on Pacific BMD
This summer, U.S. ballistic missile defenses (BMD) notched a key achievement in the Asian-Pacific. Rather than on the target range however, this time the success came from the diplomatic front.
In August, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met their Australian counterparts in Sydney to discuss security challenges at the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultation, or AUSMIN. Among the various pledges and promises covered in the official joint communique was a single sentence which noted that a bilateral working group would be established to examine potential Australian contributions to Asian-Pacific BMD. This would be a considerable victory as Australia could significantly help boost U.S. efforts to shore up its regional BMD network.
But the administration should hold off on any celebratory pats on the back just yet, as serious challenges to the U.S. Asian-Pacific BMD shield remain.
For starters, this isn’t the first time Australia announced it would take part in U.S. BMD initiatives. Before the Labor Party came to power in 2007, Australia issued similar statements pledging Aussie participation to help counter the growing ballistic missile threat.
Yet, little if any progress was actually achieved. Once in power, the Labor Party downgraded Australia’s prior pledges, unexpectedly pulling the rug out from under America’s feet. This history should raise a few eyebrows as to the long term viability of Australia’s most recent promise, especially as the new majority party’s popularity continues to plummet.
But a fickle Australia is only the beginning. The United States has a whole laundry list of issues that need to be sorted out.
For example, staunch missile defense supporter Japan maintains strict constitutional limitations on what military actions it can or cannot take. Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently revised Japan’s constitution to add a collective defense amendment, the move has been divisive and faced vehement criticism. To be sure, recent polls have shown the majority of Japanese citizens oppose Abe’s reforms. Thus, Abe’s collective defense clause is not set in stone and will likely face persistent demands to revert back to Japan’s unaltered constitution, where Tokyo was prohibited from defending allied personnel in the event of a missile attack.
Across the Sea of Japan, longtime ally South Korea also has its fair share of complications. For starters, South Korea has been adamant that it will not join U.S. regional missile defenses. Instead, Seoul has chosen to sink $192.6 billion into beefing up its indigenous Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), a system intended to be independent of U.S. and Japanese collaboration. While officials note the system could be able to interoperate with U.S. technologies, the KAMD is intended to stand alone.
What’s more, South Korea has been less than receptive about welcoming U.S. THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) missile defense deployments. In an interview South Korean Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin hinted that he wouldn’t be opposed to any U.S. THAADs in Korea, provided the United States picked up the bill. Kim went on to flatly clarify that “South Korea has no plans to buy and deploy THAAD.”
But most disruptive has been South Korea’s acrimonious relationship with Japan. South Korea maintains a long list of grievances predating World War II. The rift remains an agonizing thorn in Washington’s side, as the persistence of bitter rows between the two dismisses hope for linked cooperation.
The consequence of these various snags and quarrels make establishing an integrated architecture consisting of armaments and resources from multiple allies very problematic. Missile defense requires a great deal of coordination and cohesiveness in order to guarantee incoming enemy missiles will be destroyed. Likewise, the high costs of BMD ground, aerial, and sea-based assets make it necessary for the United States and its allies to not only pool and share defenses, but effectively unify them as well. In other words, close inoperability of combined technologies is essential to creating a seamless and effective missile defense network. Currently, the United States is forced to rely on a fragmented and incoherent arrangement of information and assets, making the regional defense highly inefficient.
This is not to say the United States is utterly failing to produce a robust missile defense construction in the Asian-Pacific; far from it. Current deployed Aegis destroyers and cruisers are perhaps the most dependable BMD in any allied arsenal. Additionally, the United States and Japan are rapidly co-developing new missile defense technologies, such as the SM-3 Block 2A, and significant optimism lingers that South Korea could still yet decide to purchase high-altitude THAAD batteries or advanced ship-based Standard Missile 3 interceptors.
However, there is still clearly considerable work needing to be done if the United States wants to stitch together a comprehensive and capable Asian- Pacific defense.
A good starting point would be through a new concerted diplomatic effort aimed at increasing allied cooperation. The United States should advance high-level, BMD centered consultations involving all of our allies. This is intended to supplement the current jerky and narrow interactions that have leaders scurrying back and forth, capital to capital, for bilateral discussions.
Moreover, initial mechanisms already exist: The Defense Trilateral Talks between South Korea, Japan, and the United States, and the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue with Japan, Australia, and the United States. The four nations could further consolidate their interactions by establishing a comprehensive forum dedicated to discussing regional missile threats and how best to jointly counter them.
Sadly, current dialogues are held too few and far between, allowing much of the positive energy established to fizzle. Although President Obama was able to get South Korean and Japanese leaders to agree in principle to share military information about North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles, little tangible progress has actually followed. Rather, the relationship remains chilled and continues to hamper missile defense efforts.
Still, the joint AUSMIN declaration was encouraging. The agreement gives substantial momentum toward joining Australia to the U.S.-led missile defense shield. Immediate contributions could consist of bases, anti-missile ships, joint technical developments, and much needed additional radar capabilities. Likewise, Canberra could help mediate tension between Japan and South Korea.
While getting Australia involved is undoubtedly significant, more positive follow-on steps need to be taken to bolster the versatility and reliability of our Asian-Pacific missile defense system. Amid constant waves of bellicose threats from missile obsessed North Korea, it would be prudent for these actions to be taken sooner, rather than later.
Harrison Menke is a second year graduate student at Missouri State University’s graduate department of Defense and Strategic Studies. During his time in Washington, Harrison has interned at several think-tanks, including CSIS, the Heritage Foundation, Center for Security Policy, and the American Foreign Policy Council, and has published several articles in outlets such as US News & World Report and Defense News. Harrison is a Rumsfeld Foundation Fellow, a Heritage Foundation George C. Marshall Fellow, and a member of the Center for International Maritime Security’s Washington chapter.