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Missiles Away!

If you like frantic arms buildups, here's a new Asia policy for you.

On Sunday, the South Korean government announced that it had strong-armed the Obama administration into gutting what little remained of international efforts to fight the spread of missiles.

Wait, let me try that again.

On Sunday, the South Korean government announced that the United States had assented to a revision of Seoul's missile guidelines, increasing the range of permitted ballistic missiles from 300 to 800 kilometers.

This is a bad idea, one that will worsen security dynamics in Northeast Asia and accelerate the spread of long-range missiles. It represents the triumph of short-term efforts to avoid friction in an important bilateral relationship at the expense of our long-term interest in discouraging the spread of ballistic missiles. The best I can say is that it is an election year here and there.

Although the Obama administration had yet to comment on the agreement as I was writing this piece -- it was Sunday and much of official Washington was watching the town's first playoff baseball game in 74 years -- U.S. officials informed members of Congress of the decision over the weekend, describing the step as one of the "counter-measures we and the ROK should take together as an Alliance to address the threat posed by DPRK ballistic missiles."

At some level, this is amusing. U.S. officials often accuse North Korea of making "excuses" when Pyongyang claims that some awful act is in response to some American provocation. They are often right, but in this case, that's also exactly what the Obama administration is doing -- using North Korea as an excuse for what appears to be an acute case of clientitis.

South Korea has sought long-range ballistic missiles since well before the North Koreans were in the business. Seoul and Washington have argued about the range of South Korea's ballistic missiles since the mid-1970s, before the United States was aware of North Korea's interest in importing its first Scud missiles. How the United States found itself in the position of being able to tell South Korea what sort of missiles it can and cannot build is an interesting tale.

In late 1974, after the Nixon administration proposed withdrawing a significant number of U.S. ground forces from South Korea, the dictator of South Korea, General Park Chung-hee, started a covert program to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Ford administration was able to exert significant pressure on Park to suspend the program in 1976, but Park again resumed efforts after President Carter proposed withdrawing all U.S. combat forces from Korea. Carter eventually abandoned the withdrawal plan. Then, the chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency shot Park in the head. (The scene is presented in gory cinematic detail in the 2005 film, The President's Last Bang.)

That really slowed things down.

Officially, South Korea agreed to limit the range of its ballistic missiles to 180 kilometers in mid-1979, while Park was still alive. (The agreement is apparently classified, but as best I can tell it was simply an exchange of letters between John Wickham, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, and the South Korean defense minster.) But Park's successor, Chun Doo-hwan, followed through with particular gusto, purging the missile program of scientists in an effort to secure American political support for his ugly little military dictatorship. The exchange of letters was not rendered into a formal agreement until 1990.

None of these agreements is public. As far as I can tell, South Korean officials never mentioned the 1979 agreement and avoided talking about the 1990 agreement for several years afterward. The main public source of information about the 1979 memorandum and Chun's purge was one of Park's advisers, Oh Won-chol.

The important point is that South Korea's voluntary guidelines are the direct result of South Korea's covert nuclear weapons program -- a program that continued through the 1980s. When South Korea signed an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency, permitting more intrusive access, Seoul admitted to a series of safeguards violations through the 1980s (as well as some undeclared uranium enrichment work through 2000). Although the constituency for building nuclear weapons in today's democratic South Korea remains a minority, it is not negligible. Certain conservative politicians routinely call for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. Although I doubt the South Korean government would try to build the bomb, that confidence rests on voluntary measures that Seoul has accepted to reassure the rest of the world that its nuclear weapons ambitions are a thing of the past. Limiting the payload and range of its missiles was one of those measures. (I should also note that the agreement contains other restrictions, including on solid-fueled missiles and cruise missiles, as well as provisions for notifying the United States about flight tests and other developments. If you are permitted to read the cables released by Wikileaks, several convey notifications under the "2001 ROK New Missile Guidelines.")

South Korea was always unhappy with the restrictions and persuaded the Clinton administration to ease the guidelines in January 2001 as part of an agreement to bring South Korea into what is called the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The MTCR is a voluntary cartel among states that possess ballistic missile technology, in which they agree to restrict exports of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as UAVs, that are capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload more than 300 kilometers. The MTCR guidelines are widely used as a yardstick -- the sanctions on Iran and North Korea use the MTCR guidelines to define which items should be considered as missile exports. When the United States reached a bilateral disarmament agreement with Libya, an important condition was that it surrender all missiles captured by the MTCR definition.

Relaxing the restriction on South Korea's missile development from 180 kilometers to the MTCR threshold of 300 kilometers (with a 500 kilogram payload) was a reasonable compromise to bring the ROK into the suppliers' cartel. Just so long as the ROK remained within the MTCR limits.

An 800-kilometer ballistic missile, however, is another kettle of fish. Why South Korea wants an 800-kilometer range missile is also an interesting question. Reportedly, Seoul initially asked Washington for permission to build a missile capable of carrying 1,000 kilograms a distance of 1,000 kilometers, citing the need to be able to target all of North Korea from Jeju Island, a tourist haven in the waters south of the Korean Peninsula. (If true, you have to wonder if there is a Korean word for chutzpah.) The final compromise at 500 kilograms/800 kilometers places all of North Korea within range of Daegu, in central Korea. South Korea's national security adviser claimed that the purpose of 800-kilometer missiles "lies in deterring armed provocations by North Korea." If Seoul plans to send conventionally armed missiles streaking into North Korea the next time it shells a South Korean island or sinks a warship, that seems like a pretty good reason not to revise the guidelines. Deterring North Korean provocations remains a serious challenge, but it is hard to see how ballistic missiles offer much of a response.

I am not one to think we should forgo useful military capabilities just to reassure Pyongyang. Some in the North will undoubtedly use this development to support more aggressive policies, but others will have their say, too -- and none of us knows enough about North Korean leadership politics to intervene with any confidence. But this agreement does foreclose the possibility of a future deal with North Korea to join the ROK in renouncing MTCR-class ballistic missiles. The Clinton administration came tantalizingly close to such a deal in late 2000 before its time ran out. The Bush administration abandoned the negotiations. I had some modest hope that the Obama administration would resume such efforts, but it was not to be.

While it is hard to see how this deal makes the situation with North Korea much worse than it is, I cannot say the same about how relations with China and Japan may fare. Both countries are likely to be alarmed, and with good reason. Although Tokyo and Beijing are about 1,000 kilometers from South Korea, range and payload are interchangeable along a curve -- lower the payload and the missile will fly farther. A notional 800-kilometer missile could fly more than 1,000 kilometers if the payload were reduced to 400 kilograms or less. In case you were wondering, the nuclear weapons design that Pakistan got from China and gave to Libya weighed about 500 kilograms. Current Pakistani nuclear weapons designs do much better than that. There will be defense types in Beijing and Tokyo playing with missile fly-out models for the next few days. They won't like the results.

One of the reasons that the conservative paper, Chosun Ilbo, gave for seeking a loosening of the missile guidelines? South Korea needs to participate in the "frantic arms buildup" underway in the region. I am not making that up! If you like frantic arms buildups, then this is the policy for you! Here is the actual paragraph:

But China, Japan and North Korea are already engaged in a frantic arms buildup, drastically bolstering their missile capability including intercontinental ballistic missiles, or developing solid rocket boosters that could be diverted for ICBMs.

How it is in the U.S.  interest to encourage South Korea to participate in a regional arms race is beyond me.

Note, too, the reference to Japan -- which does not, in fact, have a military surface-to-surface missile capability and, last I checked, was a close U.S. ally. Chosun Ilbo goes out of its way to warn that Japan's solid-rocket program "could be diverted for ICBMs." Japan and Korea have a poor relationship that dates to Japan's brutal colonization of the Korean peninsula. While much of the press's attention lately has focused on a small number of uninhabited islands disputed between China and Japan, Japan and South Korea have been playing out a similar drama in smaller scale over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands. The United States has pressed South Korea and Japan to sign a bilateral defense accord, but the South Koreans backed out. South Korean politicians, when discussing the issue of missile range, have a disturbing habit of segueing into historical grievances against Japan.

The reference to ICBMs, by the way, is not an accident. Chosun Ilbo has criticized the agreement on the basis that it does limit South Korea's development of solid-fueled boosters that might be used in a future ICBM program. It is not clear to me whether we are supposed to take seriously the envious references to ICBMs possessed by neighboring countries. The whole notion of a South Korean ICBM seems so far-fetched and pointless that it really makes one wonder if Land of the Morning Calm was meant sarcastically. On my blog, Arms Control Wonk, I have a review of the various rationales for longer-range missiles.

Then there is the broader erosion of our efforts to curb the spread of ballistic missiles. The MTCR is a voluntary regime. Carving out exceptions is dangerous business, given that virtually every country wouldn't mind an exception or two, especially if there happens to be a multi-billion dollar arms sale on the table. The Obama administration will surely argue this is not, strictly speaking, an exception to the MTCR because South Korea is developing these missiles indigenously. (Amazingly, South Korea has now announced that an 800-kilometer missile has been in development all along and will be ready for deployment in a few years.) But South Korea's missiles are based in large part on U.S. assistance provided over many years, assistance provided largely on the expectation that South Korea would constrain its missile program. And South Korea joined the MTCR largely on the expectation that participation would make it easier for Seoul to import relevant technologies.

Once upon a time, U.S. policy was based on the notion that proliferation was good when our friends did it and bad only when our enemies did. At some point, however, what you might call enlightened self-interest suggested a different view. Since not everyone agreed which countries were good and which were bad, a regime of proliferating only to one's friends would ultimately be no regime at all. In place of special pleading, we put in place rules. Enforcing rules is hard enough, but is doubly so when the biggest player gives the impression that rules are made to be broken. France and the United Kingdom sold what were arguably Category 1 MTCR cruise missiles to the United Arab Emirates in the late 1990s and Saudi Arabia in 2010. While the latter sale happened during the Obama administration, which has made such a fuss about proliferation and international agreements, there was nary a peep from Foggy Bottom. One senior administration official apparently described the State Department folks complaining about the sale of cruise missiles to Saudi Arabia as "treaty weenies."

Now another of our friends wants to get into the long-range missile business and that's fine with us. Well, other countries have friends too, and we may not like some of the sales we'll see. The treaty weenies may yet have a point.

KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/GettyImages

National Security

Rocket Science 101

Why we need to cooperate with Russia on missile defense.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was right when he said last week that "reset" is not enough. The United States and Russia need a security cooperation software upgrade. Many issues could qualify for Sotrudnichestvo (Cooperation) 2.0, but none could do more to transform U.S.-Russia security relations than cooperation on missile defense.

Three years after Barack Obama's administration announced revised plans for missile defense in Europe and nearly two years after the NATO-Russia Council pledged to cooperate on missile defense, two misunderstandings continue to bedevil progress. On the one hand, some Americans -- including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his Oct. 8 speech -- claim that the administration weakened George W. Bush's missile defense plans in the face of Russian complaints. For their part, Russians maintain that the current plans threaten Russia's security. Both claims are wrong and fail to understand that missile defense has to meet two requirements that at first glance look like a zero-sum Catch-22.

First, the United States wants to be able to protect itself and its allies against Iranian ballistic missiles and, potentially, nuclear weapons. Second, it sees further cuts in nuclear stockpiles -- including nonstrategic warheads, which pose a particularly high risk of proliferation -- as a national security priority. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that Russia will negotiate further cuts in nuclear stockpiles only if the United States does not deploy missile defenses that Russia fears will undermine its security. The challenge is to simultaneously defend against an Iranian nuclear missile capability without reinforcing Russian insecurity. Deploying what the administration calls the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) in cooperation with Russia is the United States' chance to do both.

One of the most persistent misunderstandings about missile defense is that the Obama administration scrapped Bush-era plans for missile defenses in Central Europe to appease Russia. In fact, the September 2009 decision was driven by the urgent need to deploy a system that works, and works soon. The four-phase EPAA is more robust, more flexible, and more effective than the previous plan, which would have been deployed only in 2017 or 2018. With 24 Standard Missile-3s deployed in Romania beginning in 2015 (Phase 2) and 24 in Poland beginning in 2018 (Phase 3, with upgraded interceptors planned for 2020 as Phase 4), the EPAA will offer more comprehensive coverage of Europe and U.S. forces deployed there than the 10 interceptors of the previous plan.

The new approach uses proven technology to provide protection first to those parts of Europe already vulnerable to Iran's current capabilities, with flexibility to upgrade the architecture as U.S. systems develop and Iran develops longer-range missiles. Elements of the EPAA will contribute to the defense of the United States from a future Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). And the EPAA is robust. Its distributed, mobile, and relocatable systems make missile defense assets more difficult for an adversary to target, enhancing survivability.

Recognizing its value, NATO allies unanimously agreed to this new approach at the Lisbon summit in November 2010. Obama has declared that the United States is committed to all four phases of the EPAA. Keeping true to his pledge, the United States has already deployed the first phase, with Aegis ships in the Mediterranean Sea and a land-based radar in Turkey. European missile defense is already a reality.

Appeasing Russia was not part of the calculation. Indeed, when I was briefed on the plans for EPAA in the summer of 2009, I told my colleagues in the Defense Department that I expected Russia to like EPAA even less than the previous plan, precisely because its flexibility and the larger number of interceptors would fuel nightmare scenarios in the Russian General Staff. Unfortunately, my prediction has been proved right.

The Russian General Staff argues that U.S. missile defenses in Europe will be able to intercept Russian ICBMs aimed at the United States, thereby undermining Russia's deterrent. We might ponder why -- long after Cold War confrontation is well behind us -- Russian leaders continue to put this issue at the center of their security relationship with the United States. In any event, fears that this system will negatively impact Russia's nuclear deterrent are unfounded.

The EPAA will deploy Standard Missile-3 interceptors in numbers only sufficient to thwart a few dozen ICBMs fired from Iran or another rogue actor -- nowhere near the 1,550 warheads that Russia is permitted under the New START agreement. And the Russian military is selling itself short: While these defenses are effective against crude but deadly missiles, such as those under development by Iran, U.S. defenses do not have the capability to thwart Russia's sophisticated missile technology and countermeasures. If Russian leaders really want to strike American targets, EPAA will not stop them.

Perhaps most importantly, EPAA's geographic footprint makes it effective only against missiles launched from the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. Land-based sites in Romania and Poland cannot intercept Russian ICBMs aimed at the United States, even those ICBMs deployed at sites in western Russia, let alone Russian submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The interceptor sites are too close to Russia: By the time sensors could identify a Russian missile launch and lock in an intercept path, the Russian ICBMs would be on their way to U.S. targets with the interceptor in a futile tail-chase. It's Rocket Science 101.

Since January 2011, U.S. defense officials have met with Russian officials numerous times to explain EPAA and why it cannot neutralize Russia's strategic nuclear retaliatory capability. After about six of these meetings, I suggested to one of my Russian counterparts that we knew one another's briefings so well we could change sides of the table and give one another's presentations for a change. He liked that comment, but of course instead we dutifully took our seats on the correct sides of the table and worked through the explanations and slides once again.

In May of this year, the Russian Defense Ministry hosted an international conference at which the Russian General Staff presented briefings and technical analyses to explain its concerns. This time, the graphics in the Russian presentations were very advanced, with nifty 3-D dynamic imaging, but the basic arguments (and conclusions) were the same -- and still off the mark. The briefings attracted headlines when Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff, threatened to preemptively strike missile defense sites in Europe in the event of a crisis. Entirely overlooked in the headlines, unfortunately, were detailed briefings by very senior U.S. and NATO officials explaining why EPAA cannot counter Russia's strategic capability and what NATO has proposed for a robust cooperative architecture with Russia.

Under the proposed cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense, NATO and Russia would establish an operational center at which data from each side's sensors would be fused to create a common picture. Russian radars are located in areas that would provide a direct benefit to U.S. sensors targeting the Middle East. By combining the sensor data from NATO and Russian systems, each of which provides a different angle of view when detecting incoming ballistic missiles, interceptors can be launched with greater speed and accuracy. Because ballistic missiles move so fast, seconds count.

Improving this sensor capability alone would provide an extraordinary benefit to Europe and the United States. In addition, NATO and Russia could cooperate on planning and coordinating interception of threat missiles, improving the protection of one another's territories and populations in a time of crisis. While NATO and Russia would each maintain ultimate responsibility for its own defense and control of its own interceptors, the combined capability as a result of cooperation could create a system that is more than the sum of its parts.

In addition to the concrete benefits, missile defense cooperation would provide Russia insight into how NATO's system operates and what its intentions and capabilities really are. That may be precisely why so many in Russia's security elite oppose missile defense cooperation with NATO: It would deprive them of an enemy. That insight and the security it would bring could transform the U.S.-Russia relationship from one in which the Russian leadership actively depends on the threat of retaliation for Russian security to one in which Russia focuses on real challenges, such as violent extremism and shifting power relationships throughout Asia.

Although the repeated U.S.-Russia meetings on missile defense cooperation began to feel like Dr. Strangelove meets Groundhog Day, in fact it was clear to me that we made real progress in understanding one another's technical analyses and -- perhaps more importantly -- recognizing our misunderstandings. For example, it became clear at one point that a U.S. presentation on the territory that EPAA could defend from enemy missiles (including parts of Russia) upset the Russians because they incorrectly thought the presentation showed the enemies the EPAA could defend against -- a misunderstanding that was easily corrected. Because EPAA is not capable of or intended against Russia, there is only win-win in the opportunity for military experts to work together in the cooperative structure the United States has proposed.

Finally, there is a persistent misunderstanding that the Obama administration is willing to compromise the efficacy of the system and sensitive technologies in order to secure Russian cooperation. While it is true that during discussions over the past two years, Russian officials have persistently pressed their U.S. counterparts to limit EPAA, the United States has been clear that such an option is not acceptable. Obama has made clear that an evolving threat environment and U.S. security responsibilities do not permit the United States to accept any future limitations on its missile defense systems. The goal of U.S. discussions on missile defense is to find agreement on how to act together, not how not to act.

Opponents of cooperation have suggested that the United States might provide Russia with the "hit-to-kill" technology on which missile defenses depend -- the culmination of decades of research and investment. The administration categorically denied such a scenario in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2011 when a senior defense official stated clearly, "We will not compromise essential technologies. There's no discussion of sharing hit-to-kill with Russia." Defense Department proposals for missile defense cooperation with Russia have been developed to ensure that sensitive technology will be neither shared nor compromised.

Effective missile defense cooperation will improve missile defenses against Iran and at the same time reassure Russia. It is the perfect security cooperation software upgrade for the "reset." There are not enough win-win opportunities in national security. We should embrace this one.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images