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North Korea versus Guam: The missile and missile defense race goes hypersonic

Since the mid-2010s, the possibility of an exchange of fire between North Korea and the United States Pacific territory of Guam has gained growing centrality in the decades long conflict between the two countries. Andersen Air Force Base and Guam Naval Base provide a vital means for the U.S. to project power into East Asia, with the U.S. Marine Corps also set to increasingly rely  on the territory following the opening of Camp Blaz in January 2022 to relocate assets from Okinawa to a safer distance from potential Chinese or North Korean strikes.

While these facilities are of immense value to the United States, particularly as the importance of military activities in the region has grown since the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” initiative in the early 2010s, they also present a point of vulnerability due to their greater proximity to China and North Korea. This allows China to target them with a much more diverse range of assets including cruise missile armed bombers, and North Korea to place them within its missile range much earlier than it did facilities on Hawaii or the U.S. mainland. 

North Korea demonstrates its improving strike capabilities

North Korea is thought to have first gained the capability to launch ballistic missile strikes on Guam in 2016 with the service entry of the Hwasong-10 ballistic missile, otherwise known as the Musudan. The missile’s development had long been cause for concern in the United States, with the Obama administration having in 2013 deployed THAAD missile defense systems to Guam as a precaution against potential strikes. The Obama White House’s efforts to prevent North Korea from enhancing its missile strike capabilities were notably particularly aggressive, and ranged from launching a cyber warfare campaign that may have slowed the Hwasong-10’s development to seriously considering launching a major attack on the country in 2016 – which a number of factors notably allowed Pyongyang to deter. 

Guam’s vulnerability and its importance both grew in 2017 as the Donald Trump administration seriously considered launching a military assault on North Korea. This assault would have included massive nuclear strikes that could have “incinerated a couple of million people” in the country, according to then-Defense Secretary James Mattis. As part of preparations for conflict, the U.S. Air Force increased munitions supplies and bomber deployments, while North Korea that year tested a successor to the Hwasong-10, the Hwasong-12, which was unofficially dubbed “Guam Killer” by a number of analysts as its range indicated that targeting facilities on the island were the primary reason for its development. North Korea’s demonstration of the capability to strike the U.S. mainland, however, and significant expansion of this capability in the following years, provided a valuable strategic deterrent and a significantly stronger argument in Washington against launching a war than the vulnerability of facilities of Guam had alone been able to. 

The modernization of both missile defenses and strike capabilities both within North Korea and at American facilities on Guam have increasingly taken on the appearance of a missile race between the two territories, and are expected to be a central aspect of any potential full scale conflict between Pyongyang and Washington. In September 2021, North Korea first tested a ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle, and notably used the first stage of the Hwasong-12 ballistic missile for testing. These allow the final stage of a missile to maneuver and glide at hypersonic speeds, significantly changing their trajectories and allowing them to maintain very high speeds in a missile’s final stages, which makes them particularly difficult to intercept. As testing of hypersonic glide vehicles continued, the country was reported in November 2023 to be testing a solid fuel engine for a new generation of “Guam Killer” missiles to succeed the Hwasong-12, with such fuel composites allowing them to be stored fully fueled and launched far more quickly, which in turn made them much more difficult to intercept. This was expected to facilitate the introduction of a new generation of “Guam Killers” that paired both a hypersonic glide vehicle and a solid fuel engine, which  then materialized in January 2024 with the first testing of such a missile. Its designation remains unknown. The testing of unmanned submarines with nuclear strike capabilities, and expansion of the ballistic missile submarine fleet, have posed very significant further challenges to Guam’s defenses. 

missile, provocations
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed a test-firing of a new land-to-sea missile, the Padasuri-6 on Feb. 14, according to Rodong Sinmun on Feb. 15. (Rodong Sinmun-News1)

As North Korea has significantly modernized its arsenal to hold American facilities on Guam at greater risk, the Pentagon has planned a tremendous expansion of missile defenses on the territory which appear set to make its airspace the most densely defended in the world. This will include construction of up to 20 new air defense sites under the Enhanced Integrated Air and Missile Defense (EIAMD) system designed to provide a continuous multi layered defense. On March 4 the U.S. Air Force published images of a live AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid-Response Weapon hypersonic ballistic missile carried by a B-52H strategic bomber at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. The missile, previously reported to have seen development terminated after multiple failed tests, would, if put into operation, provide a means of striking targets across the Korean Peninsula with conventional or nuclear warheads that would be effectively impossible to intercept. The deployment was seen as a major show of force aimed at Pyongyang, as well as Beijing and Moscow, with reports subsequently indicating that the missile would see a live test in the Pacific. The future of the AGM-183A remains uncertain, but with hypersonic glide vehicles confirmed to have seen their first combat test in February in the Russian-Ukrainian War, while China and North Korea make significant progress building arsenals with of similar capabilities, development of a viable hypersonic glide vehicle has become an important priority for the Pentagon for the Pacific theater in particular.

North Korea continues to modernize its missile defenses

The importance of American hypersonic weapons in a potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula has grown as North Korea has not only advanced the testing of its own hypersonic glide vehicles, but also significantly modernized its missile defenses. This has significantly improved its capability to intercept American ballistic and cruise missile attacks. Since before the Vietnam War, North Korean airspace has been among the most densely defended in the world, with the country notably being the only one confirmed to have attempted to shoot down an American SR-71 spy plane, gaining a near miss with an aging S-75 system in 1981. The country subsequently acquired the S-200 long range air defense system, which was considered ahead of its time and provided a very long ranged defense against ballistic missiles which it could target at altitudes of up to 40,000 meters. The system’s lack of mobility, leaving it highly vulnerable to precision strikes, as well as its dated electronics by 21st century standards, have nevertheless less limited its viability, and there have been indications that the system has been phased out of service. 

A new generation of missile defenses began to enter service from 2017, the first of these being the Pyongae-5 system which closely resembled the Russian S-300 and provided a high degree of mobility and far more modern electronics. Its unnamed successor was unveiled in October 2020, with tests showing these use missiles with twin rudder control and a double impulse flight engine indicating a high degree of sophistication. With over 200 transporter erector launchers with these systems thought to currently be in service, the challenges American attacks would face from Korean missile defenses are significantly greater than those seen before the mid-2010s, much as North Korean forces will face growing challenges seeking to strike Guam as missile defenses there are improved. 

Ultimately, both within North Korea and on Guam, missile strike capabilities and missile defense systems will likely continue to be modernized in large part to counter advances made by the other’s strike and missile defense capabilities. Additionally, the introduction of hypersonic weapons and new generations of missile defenses on both sides looks set to continue. 

Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

March 12, 2024 at 05:30AM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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