[lit-ideas] The Poisoned Shrimp Gambit

  • From: "Andreas Ramos" <andreas@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 21 Jun 2006 20:12:53 -0700

("The Poisoned Shrimp Gambit": no, that's not a Perry Mason novel. It's a military strategy of small countries. Although they can't have a military that can win a war, they can at least have a military that can inflict great damage on invaders. Thus they are a "poisoned shrimp": anyone who tries to gobble them up will regret it. In the case of N. Korea, with a leader who is both 5'3" and psycho, the name is appropriate. -- andreas)

North Korea, U.S.: A Game of Missile Chicken
June 21, 2006 23 28  GMT


As Washington ponders shooting down a test-fired North Korean missile, there
are two key factors it must consider. The first is the technological
capabilities of the various anti-missile systems available. The second, and
perhaps more important, is the likely response from the North Koreans.


The United States is making it very clear it is considering shooting down
any Taepodong-2 missile North Korea test launches. While much of this talk
is aimed at a domestic audience, Washington is also hoping to add to the
pressure on North Korea's decision-making apparatus to refrain from a
launch. Pyongyang has offered to discuss the reportedly impending (for a
week) launch in a bilateral forum; Washington has rejected this offer.

But while the suggestion of shooting down the missile has drawn plenty of
attention, there are two critical factors Washington will consider before
giving the order to fire. First is the technological capabilities available
for the task. Second is the likely response by North Korea.

The U.S. ballistic missile defense system is multi-layered, being designed
to engage hostile missiles during the three phases of their flight -- the
boost, mid-course and terminal phases. During the boost phase, after the
missile has initially left the ground, it can be engaged with an airborne
laser, but that system is years from becoming anything close to operational.
The ground-based interceptors emplaced in Alaska and California are designed
to engage hostile missiles outside of the earth's atmosphere after they have
completed their boost stage and are well on their way to their targets.

The U.S. Navy's SM-2 Block IV and SM-3 missiles are also capable of engaging
hostile missiles in midcourse. In the terminal phase, point-defense missile
defense systems such as the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 are designed to
engage hostile missiles after the boost phase when they have re-entered the

If North Korea does launch a missile toward the continental United States,
the U.S. military could choose to engage it with SM-2 or SM-3 missiles,
rather than risk an attempt with the ground-based interceptors based in
Alaska and California. The ground-based system has not had a very successful
track record -- only 50 percent of the intercept tests were successful, and
critics have cast doubt on the validity of the test conditions. The SM-3 has
a much better track record than the ground-based interceptors. Out of seven
intercept tests conducted, six were successful. The most advanced U.S.
anti-missile system, the SM-3 has been under development and is in the
process of reaching operational status. Boeing Co. sent the warhead to
Raytheon Co. to be mated to the missile airframe on June 10.

In a pinch, the SM-2 Block IV missiles currently deployed aboard
Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers could be used
to intercept a ballistic missile headed for Japan. The SM-2 is stored below
deck in magazines with an auto loading mechanism that can put another
missile on the rail about every 7 seconds. The Aegis system can easily guide
more than 20 missiles simultaneously. With only one target, the chances of a
complete miss are virtually nil.

Of the two Aegis-equipped U.S. Navy ships currently based in Japan -- the
USS Chancellorsville and the USS Cowpens -- the Cowpens is currently
participating in the Valiant Shield naval exercise off Guam, leaving only
the Chancellorsville in Japanese waters. The Chancellorsville is equipped
with the SM-2, but not the Block IV version capable of intercepting
ballistic missiles. And the Ticonderoga-class USS Shiloh, one of the first
U.S. Navy ships to be equipped with the SM-3 missile, will be
forward-deployed to Yokosuka naval base in August to provide a dedicated,
full-time missile-defense shield over Japan.

Technological questions aside, there is another calculation that goes into
any U.S. plan to shoot down a North Korean Taepodong-2 missile: the North
Korean reaction.

North Korea's nuclear and missile crises are part of a complex (and often
confusing, from a western perspective) attempt to ensure the preservation of
the regime. With the end of the Cold War, North Korea lost its sponsors,
China and Russia, who began to expand ties with the more economically
dynamic South Korea. From Pyongyang's perspective, South Korea still had its
nuclear umbrella from its alliance with the United States, but the North
Korean nuclear umbrella was in tatters and entirely unreliable.

Thus Pyongyang stepped up its nuclear program in earnest, leading to the
1994 nuclear standoff. The underlying logic was that it would be more costly
for some other nation (the United States) to attack North Korea than to
simply leave it be. But Pyongyang took this "poison shrimp" strategy even
further. Given the state of economic decline compounded by extreme weather
undermining what inefficient agriculture there was, North Korea was in dire
shape. Even if it wasn't attacked, its regime was facing a severe internal

Rather than deny the humanitarian problems, Pyongyang allowed them to be
exaggerated on the international scene, and talks of famine spurred
speculation of an imminent North Korean collapse -- and questions of what
that would mean. In general, the fear was that an unstable North Korea faced
with internal collapse would become even more unpredictable and lash out,
using its conventional military forces and tapping into suspected stocks of
chemical weapons and perhaps even its nuclear devices. Thus, the
international community, and particularly those most likely to be
immediately affected -- like Japan, South Korea and the United States --
funded aid and assistance for the North Korean regime, propping up the
government through food and medical donations and eventually through
economic ties.

Pyongyang's repeated nuclear and missile crises are attempts to keep this
money and aid flowing, and remind the international community how risky it
is to try to isolate the North Korean regime. The current missile test (or
at least missile issue) comes after Pyongyang failed to convince the United
States to back off on financial attacks against the regime through its
foreign banking relations. The missile is a negotiating lever to pry open
Washington's tightening stranglehold on North Korean cash.

The question, then, is that if North Korea tests a missile to stabilize its
regime, and the United States shoots that missile out of the sky, how does
the North perceive this? Does Pyongyang consider such an act tantamount to
an act of war, and decide that the regime is now irrevocably threatened and
all thoughts of U.S. military restraint are invalid? After all, the USS Lake
Erie, along with the Shiloh and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force
guided-missile destroyer Kirishima, is currently participating in an
intercept test of the SM-3 missile off Hawaii. Following the test, these
ships could be in position off North Korea or Japan in a matter of days.

If Pyongyang views a U.S. attack against its missile launch as the preamble
to a full-scale attack, North Korea may try to pre-empt by using its
medium-range Rodong missiles (of which it has an arsenal of an estimated
150-200 units) against U.S. military facilities in Japan and South Korea. In
addition, Pyongyang has hundreds of SCUD missiles and lots of conventional
artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems trained on the greater Seoul
area. Now, Pyongyang may simply lie down and accept having its missile shot
out of the air, but if the government does, can the military tolerate such
an affront, and can the regime hold?

The question for U.S. planners in this massive game of missile chicken,
then, is will North Korea risk its own missile being shot down, and can the
U.S. be confident that shooting down the missile will not trigger a
use-it-or-lose-it pre-emptive attack by the North on U.S. facilities in the
region, and on North Korea's neighbors?

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