Pacific Allies on High Alert for Pyongyang’s Next Move

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From left to right: Col.-Gen. Ri Yong Kil, Director of Operations Bureau of KPA General Staff Department, Lt.-Gen. Kim Rak Kyom, Commander of KPA Strategic Rocket Forces, Kim Jong Un, General Hyon Yong Chol, Chief of KPA General Staff Department, and General Kim Yong Chol, Director of KPA General Reconnaissance Bureau (Photo from KCTV)
North Korean Musudan medium-range ballistic missiles on a march. Photo: AP
North Korean BM25 Musudan medium-range ballistic missiles on a march. Photo: AP

South Korean and US force have heightened their alert status in the belief that North Korea intends to initiate a missile launch in the very near future. The US-South Korean Combined Forces Command (CFC) raised their Watch Condition, commonly known as “Watchcon,” from Level 3 to Level 2 indicating that a vital threat exists. The lowest alert status used by CFC is Watchcon 4 in effect in normal peacetime situations, Watchcon 3 is ordered when an important threat exists, and Watchcon 1 is reserved for wartime conditions. The Watchcon system deals only with surveillance preparedness and is separate from the Defense Condition (Defcon) alert system.

Latest intelligence indicates that the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) has completed preparations for multiple missile launches that might include short-range Scuds, medium-range Rodong-1s, and the new intermediate-range BM25 Musudan missiles. No evidence has been uncovered to indicate the Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) have been readied for launching.

According to the US Department of Defense, the United States is striving to maintain a continuous satellite presence over the area since satellite imagery accounts for the bulk of intelligence available to analysts for use in identifying and classifying North Korean movements. In recent days, inclement weather conditions over the Peninsula have hampered analysts in their attempt to develop a more detailed overview of what the North may be planning.

An analysis of the limited imagery that is available seems to indicate that the redeployed missiles under surveillance have been fueled and can be launched at almost any time.

South Korean and US intelligence sources have identified two BM25 Musudan in position aboard mobile launchers in the Wonsan area of the North’s eastern Gangwon Province and four or five Transporter Erector-Launchers (TEL) located in the eastern provinces of South Hamyeong and Gangwon along the coast of Donghan Bay. The TELs in the Donghan Bay area are believed to be mounting Scuds, Rodong-1s, or both.

Pyongyang has a history of conducting simultaneous multiple missile launches that adds further credence to the belief multiple launches have been planned. On 5 July 2006, the North launched a Taepodong-2, four Scuds, and two Rodong-1 missiles on the same day. This was the first known launch of the Taepodong-2 and the missile reportedly failed 35 to 40 seconds after liftoff. On 4 July 2009, Pyongyang repeated the multiple launch scenario when the KPA conducted a simultaneous launch of five Scuds and two Rodong-1 missiles.

Not much is known about the Musudan and some analysts declared it to be nothing more than an elaborate prop when it first appeared during a military parade in October 2010. The missile has never, to anyone’s knowledge, been tested, but it is believed to have a range of 2,500 to 4,000 kilometers and is estimated to be capable of carrying a warhead of 1,000 to 1,250 kilograms. It is possible the missile can be fitted with a nuclear warhead as well as conventional munitions. North Korea’s Scud-D (Hwasong-7) missiles have a range of 700 to 800 kilometers while the Rodong-1 missiles can reach out between 1,300 and 1,500 kilometers. However, analysts say these missiles can be configured to vary their range with adjustments to launch angle and fuel load.

At present, the US Navy has three Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers on station in the waters around the Korean Peninsula along with two South Korean Aegis guided-missile destroyers deployed to the east and the west of the Peninsula. Japan has also dispatched at least two Aegis guided-missile destroyers to the Sea of Japan with a third expected to take up station in a more southerly location soon.

These Aegis destroyers are equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (ABMD) designed to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles using Lockheed Martin’s Aegis Weapon System and the Raytheon RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 (SM-3).

The CFC has three sophisticated radar systems available to detect, track, and target North Korean missile launches. Airborne surveillance is being provided by Boeing 737 Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft dubbed “Peace Eye.” At sea, the Aegis destroyers are fitted with Lockheed Martin’s AN/SPY-1D advanced radar capable of simultaneously tracking as many as 100 targets at long range.

On the ground, the CFC has the Israeli-designed EL/M-2080 Green Pine ground-based missile-defense radar on watch. The Green Pine system is a transportable Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar reportedly capable of tracking more than 30 targets simultaneously at a range of approximately 500 kilometers.

In addition to all these resources, it is believed that the United States has also deployed its sea-based X-Band Radar vessel, SBX-1, to the western Pacific. The SBX-1 features an AESA radar mounted on a semi-submersible floating drilling rig capable of withstanding the harsh conditions commonly encountered in the open sea. A one-of-a-kind vessel, the SBX-1 has a detection range of 4,700 kilometers and is designed to feed tracking data to seaborne and land-based anti-missile batteries to effect a shoot down if appropriate.

These surveillance resources allow the Pacific allies to detect and track a missile launch almost immediately and project an estimated trajectory within minutes. If the estimated trajectory appears to be a danger to allied territory or populations, it is expected that anti-missile batteries would be ordered to shoot the missile down. Should the projected trajectory appear to be only a test that represents no danger, it is likely the missile would be allowed to complete its flight.

The commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, recently testified before a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing regarding Pacific defense capabilities. Admiral Locklear assured the assembled Senators that the United States and her allies were prepared for any scenario, including a simultaneous multiple missile launch, and were fully prepared to intercept and destroy any missile or missiles the North might fire should they present a danger to life or property.

Although evidence is lacking, a likely launch date may be planned to coincide with the North’s anniversary celebration to honor the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung, on 15 April. Preparations are now underway in the North to mark this date in apparent disregard of the intense discomfort of the current situation. This commemoration is one of the most important holidays in the North and could be considered an ideal opportunity for Kim Jong-un to dazzle the populace with an unprecedented demonstration of Pyongyang’s military might.