How it is going to go down
On the odd chance that one has been hiding in a cave in the mountains or shipwrecked on an isolate atoll, here is the news item that has been run out on a daily basis for the last couple of weeks: North Korea (the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea; PDRK) is going to launch one or more missiles in a supposed “satellite” launch. (link is to the latest version of the story as of Monday morning, North American time zones).
From the same report, here is a gallery of photographs, with the first few showing the launch site and the main missile in question being assembled. The launch facility is at Musudan-ri, not very far inland from the northern end of East Korea Bay, and previous test launches have been to the east over the Sea of Japan and in one case, onward.
Now, setting aside the blatant fact that if the North Koreans are planning a simultaneous launch of a shorter range missile that rather calls into question the peaceful nature of the supposed “satellite” launch using what is being named a Unha-2 booster… more on that later… the entire process looks to be a simple violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 (and related following material bans). Here is UNSCR 1718 in full, for your review. Items 2, 5, and 7 bear directly on this case.
So that sets the stage fairly clearly: any launch of a missile applicable to ballistic missile technology in any way is a material breach of UNSCR 1718. So, just as U.N. member nations are obliged to interrupt and intercept any attempt at proliferating military technology by North Korea, the legal groundwork is clear for action against any ballistic missile technology test… once said test leaves North Korean territory. It would be problematic for an intervention to occur within North Korean sovereignty, in that lacking specific UNSC authorization (which is not going to happen; Cf. the People’s Republic of China) and requiring a disavowal of the Korean War Armistice (which is also very unlikely to happen), no one wants to restart open hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Regarding that last item, to be sure, no one wants to restart the war but both sides are at about the highest level of readiness possible right now. North Korea is just concluding their Winter Training Cycle for their military, and South Korea (and the Americans there) has also just gone through readiness exercises and is always on high alert in this season even in quiet years.
That leaves us with a pretty obvious scenario, up to a point. The North Koreans will complete their preparations and, sometime between April 4th and 8th, try to put up one or more ballistic missiles out over the Sea of Japan. The rest of the world will be sitting just outside the territorial limit, watching and deciding what to do. That watching will be done with very, very competent “eyes” however, and backed up with a capability that is just now coming into its own.
Prelude to the event:
Let us first dispense with the notion that the Unha-2 booster is anything innocent. What it is, based on intelligence and an observation of the failed launch in the July 5th, 2006, mass launch test, is just a renaming (or very slight modification) of the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile. This weapon, if it ever works, is the North Korean “dream weapon” that would provide them with the capability to deliver a 500kg+ warhead to American soil. With only slight modification, this could look like a satellite launcher to deliver roughly a tenth of that payload on-orbit. That possibility is what the Iranian government used to paint a veneer of respectability over their test of the Shahab-3 missile system (under the name Safir-2) on February 2nd, 2009, which placed a 27 kg Omid satellite into what is likely a very short-lived orbit. But the Iranians are not under as binding a ban as the North Koreans are, and they could launch their missile out over indisputably International Waters.
The North Koreans are playing the role of the innocent in all this, to no one’s surprise, and have announced the launch window and downrange debris fields all according to the general practice. If the main missile performs as expected, the first stage will burn out in about 100 seconds and fall away to an expected splash in the Sea of Japan, roughly 100 nm off the west coast of Akita Prefecture, Japan. The second stage would then burn for again roughly 100~120 seconds and fall away after staging into the North Pacific Ocean somewhere in a fairly wide area over 200 nm east of Iwate Prefecture, Japan. The upper stage would then, in a real satellite launch, attempt to burn for another roughly 100 seconds to put the package on Low Earth Orbit, with the third stage burning up after it falls away. How very thoughtful of them to announce the risk zones… on each side of Japan.
In the event of a launch:
So they assemble the missile, fuel it up, and on launch day light the candle…
The Americans know within seconds of the launch. Any reasonable judgment of American surveillance technology says they have a ballistic missile warning satellite parked over North Korea, and there is no doubt that the ignition flash would be spotted (rain or shine). Electronic intelligence aircraft will also likely be orbiting just outside the reach of the North Koreans, looking in.
Presume for now that the missile does not do its Project Vanguard impersonation and go *boom* while still inside the gantry height.
Seconds later, as the missile climbs under full load and thrust on its first stage, it clears the horizon and the sea-based sensors of several nations will pick up this big fat bird. The Republic of Korea, Japan, and the United States will all have AEGIS-equipped destroyers in the Sea of Japan to track the launch.
Presume for now that the missile makes it past the ~40 second mark of the flight without going *boom* like the 2006 launch attempt did.
The decision, at that point, is based on what capability and civilian authority has been put in place. The South Koreans (ROK) have little they can do but watch and learn. The United States Navy will have two more ballistic-missile-defense-capable (AEGIS BMD-capable) destroyers at sea to the east, armed with the superbly capable Standard SM-3 interceptor missile. They also have the best practice with the system and will have what is arguably the BMD equivalent of a sitting duck in their sights with the launch warning having gone directly to the ships, a confirmed track from the destroyer in close observation, and a still-unstaged-full-of-liquid-fuel missile in early boost phase to lock on to. But that is where the civilian authority part comes in: according to reports, U.S. Secretary of State H. Clinton has stated that no attempt to shoot down the missile will be made; U.S. Secretary of Defense R. Gates has publicly distained the need to shoot down the missile “unless an errant missile was to threaten Hawaii”.
Presume for now the North Koreans are not conducting a joint missile and warhead test that would “errantly” be headed straight for American soil, and that the Americans are competent enough to make that judgment in a timely enough manner to, if deemed necessary, use either the AEGIS BMD ships or the Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptors at Ft. Greely, Alaska.
What that all means is that the Americans are likely going to be spectators.
The nation of Japan is right under the flight path, and could reasonably argue an airspace violation since the missile would still be under second-stage boost as its territory was over-flown. Japan will be directly between the splash zones of the first and second stage boosters which might not fall in the declared zones and, in the case of a staging failure…
…the missile may well fall (from the example, in pieces) upon Japanese territory.
Here is what Japan brings to the table:
One AEGIS destroyer placed in close observation range of the launch. No SM-3 capability on that ship, but its job is to see, not shoot.
Two AEGIS BMD-capable destroyers placed to the east, both carrying SM-3 interceptors.
Japan has participated in two full-scale BMD exercises with the Americans at their Hawaiian test range, going 1 for 2 on intercepts but having learned almost as much from the miss as from the hit. Lesson one learned: Salvo launch. Put up multiple interceptors. There is no need for economy in a must-hit scenario.
Terminal Defense: Japan has spent a lot of time and money of getting good with the new (to Japan) PAC-3 variant Patriot Air Defense Missile System. The PAC-3 is a greatly altered Patriot surface-to-air missile optimized for terminal interception of ballistic missiles. This is not your Gulf War SCUD-buster; Used against a non-maneuverable warhead or missile assembly entering the system’s ~20 mile (~30 km) defensible radius, this system is a lead-pipe cinch to score a hit-to-kill physical interception. The fragments of both the target and the interceptor then rain down short of the intended target. The design is that the fragments are in such small pieces as to be of little threat. As of today, Japan has deployed several units equipped with the PAC-3 system to be positioned to protect major population centers in Akita and Iwate Prefectures. Here is the latest report from the Yomiuri Newspaper (in Japanese), which includes a picture of one of the PAC-3 vehicles arriving at Komachi Stadium in Akita City. The report also cites a deployment in-place in Iwate Prefecture.
Civilian Authority: The government of Japan has issued an authorization order prior to any possible launch that approves of immediate action by the Self-Defense Forces to destroy “any missile or debris that might endanger Japanese territory” originating from this event. No doubt about it.
So there you have it.
Any launch would be a UNSCR 1718 violation.
If a launch occurs and there is any reasonable chance that Japanese territory would be endangered, the political decision has been made by civilian leaders for Japan to defend itself and its sovereignty.
It is time to stop playing the North Korean Blackmail Game.
It is time to stop tolerating legalese obfuscations and diplomatic incompetence on the part of North Korea’s apologists, too.
Somebody hold our Foster Grants; We have got some work to do, and if you are not going to do it, well then don't get in the way.
All End Notes are embedded in the text as links.
The following are for General Information only. As always with Wiki-p, source everything.
General Information on Musudan-ri, the major North Korean missile test center
General Information (limited) on the supposed Unha-2 SLV
General Information on the Taepodong-2; what they are likely really testing
General Information on the Nodong-2; the biggest ballistic missile in anything like reliable use in the DPRK military
General Information on Iran’s Safir SLV and the Omid satellite
General Information on the AEGIS BMD system, with links from there to the SM-3 interceptor
General Information on the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System
General Information on the Patriot Air Defense System, including the PAC-3