The Buzz

Is North Korea Developing the Capability to Sink U.S. Aircraft Carriers?

Before hitting the panic button, one should emphasize that Pyongyang might have extreme difficulty in finding and efficiently tracking U.S. warships at sea in order to provide its missiles with the requisite targeting data. The article’s author admits that this is the biggest problem since Pyongyang lacks a system of satellites and its land based radars “only have detection ranges out over the ocean to a distance of about 100km” [对海雷达深侧距离仅为100 公里]. Moreover, the author contends that this missile could be very vulnerable to electronic countermeasures, especially if it is reliant on mid-course transfer of targeting data. There is even some speculation that U.S. cyber hacking could be partially responsible for one of the missile’s test failures. Then, there is the additional problem, according to the Chinese analysis, that the likely explosive yield is inadequate and the “area of destructions is relatively small” [破坏面积比较小].

Despite its problems, the Chinese article concludes that the Hwasong-9 can form a potent weapon of “strategic deterrence” [战略威慑]. The mountainous landscape of North Korea is said to provide Pyongyang with ample terrain to hide these missiles—and the U.S. military is reported to be very poor at Scud hunting. Since they are said to be “a low cost platform” [平台成本底], moreover, the author suggests that North Korea can afford to fire these missiles in volleys. If these missiles can succeed in keeping U.S. aircraft carriers back 500km from the North Korean coast, they can “lower the effectiveness of any attack, and weaken the surprise of air strikes”从而消弱空中打击的突然性, 降低打击较率]. Even if attacking ships proves too difficult for North Korea to execute, the author notes the weapon could still be as a deterrent, since its accuracy would enable its employment against both Japanese and South Korean nuclear power stations.

As stated above, but let’s once again underline that there are very considerable technical barriers to entry here—ranging from ISR challenges to design of a warhead that can survive reentry and then go on to collect data and maneuver onto a moving target. Most Western specialists dismissed this capability out of hand last year when the weapon was first seriously discussed. But dismissing adversary capabilities can sometimes be foolhardy. Thus, U.S. intelligence specialists did not believe that Japan had the requisite technical proficiency to field advanced fighter aircraft or torpedoes in the 1930s and ignored reports stating otherwise in the open press. Many American sailors died in the Pacific War as a result of these analytical mistakes.

The Chinese analysis does not mock North Korean capabilities and believes that Pyongyang may yet master this weapons system. Could this be a type of psychological warfare operation—an effort to bluff by either Pyongyang or Beijing or both? Maybe, but maybe not. To take up the ISR problem briefly, one could certainly imagine that North Korea’s vast force of seventy submarines, 290 torpedo boats and 191 patrol boats could be useful in looking for the U.S. carrier groups lurking a couple hundred miles offshore. Fishing boats might be just as effective, moreover, especially in “phase zero,” (before actual hostilities have begun). North Korea has already experimented with drone surveillance and is quite likely to become much more proficient in that area, as well. Then, there is the unseemly scenario wherein China (or Russia) decide to covertly transfer the targeting data to North Korea. Indeed, China might be quite pleased to see the United States get a “bloody nose” that cannot quite be thoroughly attributed—just a “lucky shot” [幸运的射击] apparently. Finally, there is the rather discomforting possibility that Pyongyang opts to mount nuclear warheads onto these missiles. In that case, the targeting could be imperfect but the results might still be devastating.

The U.S. Navy need not fear North Korea, of course, but nor should it assume an incautious and haughty posture.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. You can reach him at [email protected].. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.

Image: Intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen at a grand military parade celebrating the 70th founding anniversary of the Korean People's Army at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) February 9, 2018. KCNA/via REUTERS​