The wave of North Korean launches demonstrates the complexity of missile defenses

SEOUL, Nov 4 (Reuters) – North Korea’s missile barrage this week was a stark illustration of the complexities of tracking and intercepting waves of missiles at different altitudes and trajectories, even in peacetime .

The challenge was evident in the conflicting and sometimes conflicting details released by South Korea and Japan about the launches. Early Thursday, the Japanese government said a North Korean missile had flown over its territory, but hours later said no.

A former senior US defense official who served in Korea warned that the confusion was not a reflection on missile defense capabilities.

“What’s happening is that Korea and Japan want to get as much information as soon as possible, often sacrificing accuracy for speed in reporting an event,” he told Reuters as anonymously to discuss sensitive issues.

There’s a difference between providing the public with a preview of a missile’s flight and the real-time data the military uses for missile defense, the former official said.

“A full analysis requires some time to calculate, double-check and analyze,” he said. “That’s not what’s happening in our air and missile defense operations centers.”

South Korea and Japan also lack the “very reliable and desirable” space infrared sensors the United States has that quickly detect missile stages as they ignite, missile expert Ankit Panda says. at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The United States will always have a better view of these events than Seoul or Tokyo, which rely on an array of surface and sea sensors to track missiles,” he said of the missile tests. .

The large number of missiles tested this week highlights North Korea’s efforts to mass-produce small but maneuverable weapons aimed at evading and crushing defences, he added.

“In a conflict, North Korea would simultaneously launch a salvo of multiple ballistic missiles; Seoul and Tokyo may be able to successfully employ missile defense systems against a few incoming targets to limit damage, but overall missile defense will remain a daunting task,” Panda said.


For a variety of reasons, including a desire for autonomy and the promotion of indigenous weapons, as well as strained ties with Japan and concerns about China’s anger, South Korea has resisted integrating its military system. missile defense with that of the United States as closely as Japan, analysts say.

The former US defense official said the South Korean and US systems are still closely combined. The United States, South Korea and Japan took part in a ballistic missile defense exercise off the coast of Hawaii in August, the first since 2017.

The three countries conducted another such exercise in early October after North Korea launched a ballistic missile that flew over Japan.

Many of North Korea’s newer short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), such as its KN-23, KN-24 and KN-25, are designed to complicate efforts to detect and intercept them.

North Korea also claims to be developing a new type of “hypersonic missile”, which relies on high speed as well as maneuverability to avoid interception.

After North Korea tested a hypersonic missile in January, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol – then still a candidate – said there would be no time to shoot down such a weapon, leaving “d ‘recourse other than a pre-emptive strike’.

As president, he ordered the expansion of Air Defense Missile Command to bolster the nation’s layered air defense system, while pumping resources into weapons aimed at destroying missiles before they could be launched. .

A growing number of voices in South Korea have called for the country to develop nuclear warheads or for the United States to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula.

Yoon’s government said it had no such plans.

Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle

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Sharon D. Cole