['Discussion' will be a new feature for JSW in which we introduce an issue and seek to stir up debate. Having built up an incredibly (and, frequently, surprisingly) knowledgeable readership, we really want to take the time to pick your brains. So read through and give us your thoughts in the comments.]

Bill Gertz at the Washington Times reported on Monday that US intelligence officials believe North Korea is developing a road-mobile inter-continental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US. Placing the missile threat in a wider context of Pentagon strategy and the East Asia missile balance, the article makes for an interesting read:

Mobile missiles are difficult for tracking radar to locate, making them easier to hide. They also can be set up and launched much more quickly than missiles fired from silos or launchpads.

China’s military recently deployed two new mobile ICBMs, the DF-31 and DF-31A. It is not known whether North Korea’s new mobile missile is based on Chinese technology. China in the past has provided missile technology to North Korea, a fraternal communist ally.

The first indications of Pyongyang’s new mobile ICBM were made public in June by Robert M. Gates, who was defense secretary at the time.

After a speech in Singapore, Mr. Gates said, “With the continued development of long-range missiles and potentially a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile and their continuing development of nuclear weapons, … North Korea is in the process of becoming a direct threat to the United States.”

The new intelligence was discussed during a closed-door briefing in mid-November for the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces and discussed in the letter to Mr. Panetta. The letter did not say specifically that the missile was North Korean, but it quoted Mr. Gates on Pyongyang’s mobile ICBM development.

The letter was signed by Rep. Michael R. Turner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the subcommittee, and subcommittee Republican Reps. Mike Rogers of Alabama, Trent Franks of Arizona, Doug Lamborn of Colorado and Mac Thornberry of Texas.

Congressional aides declined to comment on the intelligence.

Administration officials familiar with the missile data said U.S. intelligence analysts have some disagreement over the developments.

Read the full article

The question I want to ask, however, is what role Japan (and in light of our recent Asia Security Watch branch, South Korea) can contribute to US ballistic missile defense.

Clearly, any ICBM that can hit the US will also be able to hit Japan. Japan’s extensive joint development of anti-ballistic missile technology with the US and individually, including the J/FPS-5 radars that comprise the backbone of Japan’s air defense radar system,  and the move this year of the Air Defense Command to a joint facility at Yokota AFB suggests that Japan will be able to provide early-warning intelligence. Can it do more?

Road-mobile launchers are notoriously difficult to hunt down, as ineffective Gulf War Scud hunting demonstrated. It certainly muddies the debate often seen among Japan’s hawks that Japan should be able to strike against missiles readying to launch – after all, if you can’t find them, you can’t hit them. It will also provide a small measure of deterrence to the North Korean regime, who until this point have relied on conventional deterrence against the South and feigned insanity at all other points.

Then again, given the poor record of the Taepodong II tests, maybe we have nothing to worry about?

What do you think, readers?

[H/T ROK Drop]

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch