Enemy missiles are a mounting worry — so why isn't Washington reacting?

Enemy missiles are a mounting worry — so why isn't Washington reacting?
© Getty Images

Given the cascade of international news, you might be have overlooked ominous developments regarding missile and nuclear proliferation. However, reports from North Korea and Iran raise disturbing questions that policymakers must confront.

Since at least 2001, fighting proliferation has been a major preoccupation of U.S. governments. In other words, counter-proliferation is a bilateral task and a priority in advancing U.S. and international security.  

North Korea’s seven new short-range missile tests have displayed enhanced or new missile capabilities that threaten Japan and South Korea. Those new capabilities might be used to enhance longer-range capabilities in both intermediate and long-range missiles. Then it could threaten the U.S. and other Asian-Pacific states. Furthermore, North Korea’s long-standing record of proliferation to Iran, Syria and Pakistan might lead it to proliferate those technologies abroad, in return for cash or political support.

ADVERTISEMENT

In these reports, observers noted that one of North Korea’s missiles resembles the short-range U.S. ATACMS missile, while another resembles Russia’s dual-use Iskander missile that comes in both ballistic and cruise missile versions. The fact that North Korea can imitate the ATACMS short-range missile should be disquieting enough, and a sign of its technologists’ and scientists’ capabilities. It also raises the issue of how North Korea was able to do this. Did it receive help from abroad in acquiring the technology or figuring out the engineering issues involved?  

Even more troubling is the missile that resembles Russia’s Iskander. That missile is an intermediate-range dual-use missile that can threaten both South Korea and Japan with either conventional or nuclear warheads. While it is by no means a new missile, North Korea’s success in apparently emulating it represents another tribute to its scientists’ capabilities.

But this North Korean missile also raises the issue of Russian proliferation of missile — if not nuclear — technology to North Korea. Nothing is definite, but there is considerable past evidence of North Korea obtaining Russian or even Soviet missile technology in the 1990s, if not afterward, and using those acquisitions as the foundation of its nuclear and missile programs. If, indeed, Russian proliferation is continuing, this would be a powerful sign of Moscow’s animus against the U.S. and its overwhelming drive for cash in disregard of its own proper security interests — since those missiles could also target Russia. 

Nor would they represent the only example of potential proliferation.

In its most recent exercises, Iran displayed an anti-air missile system called the BAVAR-373 that supposedly is even more capable than the highly-regarded Russian S-300 anti-air missile, which the Iranian system clearly resembles. Iran has boasted about building this system, going back to 2014. And there are reports that Moscow did ship components of the S-300 to Iran, though it certainly refused to sell it the S-400 that can track targets even farther, to 250 miles. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Here again, we need to determine what Russia’s role, if any, in this new Iranian defense capability might be. If Moscow is indeed proliferating to Iran and North Korea, then that would be another, very dangerous example of its aggressive global probes against the U.S. and its alliances.

It would be highly dangerous not just because of the covert Russian support for proliferation but because both Tehran and Pyongyang have abetted each other’s proliferation and formed so-called secondary proliferation networks that sell missile technologies to third parties — for example, Pakistan which, during A.Q. Khan’s time, was itself a so-called “nuclear Walmart” for proliferators. 

Here we must also note that China too has been a major past contributor to Iran, Pakistan and North Korea’s proliferation programs and it, too, sees the U.S. as an enemy. Our intelligence community needs to examine whether Moscow and/or Beijing are facilitating missile and other forms of proliferation abroad and whether, given their own increasing alliance, they are acting jointly as part of a preconceived plan against the U.S. and its allies.

The Trump administration has wrongly dismissed North Korea’s new missiles despite the overt and growing threat they pose to our allies. This posture is shortsighted and dangerous. Those missiles threaten our allies’ security, and dismissing the threat undermines allied cohesion when we most need it regarding Korean issues. 

The threats that North Korea or Iran pose are not merely nuclear ones against us. Rather, they are multi-dimensional threats comprising both conventional and nuclear missiles, along with other ways of waging war against our allies and our troops based in their countries. Proliferation also allows them — and, potentially, Russia and China — to extend their worldwide map of threats to overextend U.S. forces and erode our alliances.  

Under the circumstances, the administration’s neglect of these developments is anything but benign. If proliferation threats exist now, then we need to address them now not later, when they become too advanced to stop them in their tracks. 

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.