The Buzz

What Would Happen if North Korea Fired Off a Nuclear Weapon?

THAAD’s Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance (AN/TYP-2) X-band radar can be configured to one of two settings: forward-base mode and terminal mode. In the latter, the radar has a range of several hundred miles and can facilitate the elimination of missiles in the terminal phase of flight. In the former, the radar’s range is extended, making it possible for THAAD to target projectiles in the initial or launch phase.

To ease China’s concerns about the radar’s ability to peer into its territory, the U.S. has agreed to configure THAAD in terminal mode. China continues to express opposition to the deployment.

THAAD is an important step for South Korean missile defense.

“THAAD is better than anything South Korea has or will have for decades,” Bruce Klingner, who specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told TheDCNF, “It is imperative that we deploy it to augment the defense of Korea and the U.S. forces deployed there.”

There are also a number of Aegis destroyers operating in the waters off of South Korea. The U.S. has several in the region; Japan has six, and South Korea has three. The Aegis ballistic missile system can track multiple missiles simultaneously and intercept enemy projectiles as needed.

There are certain gaps in South Korea’s defense though. For starters, South Korea’s KAMD is not incorporated into the broader allied defense system, thus weakening its overall effectiveness. Also, the South is particularly vulnerable to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which the North successfully tested last year.

Japan is much more “forward leaning” in its defense, Klingner notes. Japan has Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2 and 3 systems, Aegis destroyers and SM-3 interceptors, and Japan is considering deploying THAAD and Aegis Ashore units on Japanese soil to boost national defense.

The U.S. has ground-based midcourse defense systems in Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Anti-missile systems have their limitations though.

Klingner remarked that “certainly, there is that possibility” that a nuclear-armed ballistic missile could slip through allied defenses, especially given that most regional missile defense systems have never been tested in actual battle conditions.

“Missile defenses help reduce the threat, but they can’t eliminate it,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, commented.

In the simplest of terms, missile defense involves hitting a bullet with another bullet, which is no easy task.

“Missile defense systems will never provide 100 percent effectiveness … The addition of THAAD does not guarantee the protection of Seoul, but it does add another piece to the constantly changing puzzle of defense,” Rodger Baker, Vice President of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence platform, told TheDCNF.

North Korea is rapidly developing the capabilities necessary to skirt allied ballistic missile defense systems.

“North Korea can probably build missiles (especially ER Scuds) faster and more cheaply than we can build and deploy defenses,” Lewis noted. In recent weapons tests and military drills, North Korea has practiced firing off multiple missiles in rapid succession or simultaneously to overwhelm enemy missile defense systems.

“This is a tactic called ‘salvo fire,’ which is designed to place greater stress on all types of ballistic missile defenses. I don’t know how many simultaneous attacks it would take to ‘saturate’ the battle-management systems in use today by the U.S., South Korean, or Japanese militaries, but the North Koreans seem determined to refine their salvo capabilities,” Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and senior research associate in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told TheDCNF. “Even if it didn’t succeed in saturating the defenses, it would at least more rapidly deplete the defense, which has a limited number of shots.”

“Enough simultaneous launches could overwhelm the THAAD system and increase the risk of a nuclear-armed ballistic missile reaching its target in South Korea,” Kelsey Davenport, director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Institute, told TheDCNF after North Korea launched three missiles at the same time last September.

The simultaneous launch of multiple missiles is “basic missile defense countermeasure,” Lewis told CNN. “One THAAD battery is not enough. We need at least two, if not many more,” he told TheDCNF.

“The good news is that if defenses hold up against the first salvo, it’s much easier to locate mobile missiles after they fire than before,” Pollack explained, adding, “Ballistic missiles are very hot and bright upon launch, so the point of origin can be detected by satellites very rapidly. Perhaps the empty North Korean missile launch vehicles could be hunted down before they have the chance to reload,” but there is no guarantee.

What Would Be The Post-Launch Reaction?

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