Week of September 1st, 2017

North Korea Fires Ballistic Missile Over Japan
Why didn’t the US respond? 

This week North Korea launched a ballistic missile that flew over northern Japan and crashed into the Pacific Ocean northeast of Japan.  The launch was a pointed response to the US, which had threatened a military response to a NK launch against US territories or allies.

Panicked Japanese residents awoke to government warning messages sent to their mobile phones, urging them not to touch any suspicious items and warning them to take cover.  Sirens blared out in northern communities directly under the missile’s flight path, as residents received an official text that read: “Missile passing. Missile passing.”

Afterwards, Japanese Premier Abe and American President Trump talked about the situation via phone and Trump assured that Japan had America’s 100% support.

A White House statement after the phone call said the two leaders “agreed that North Korea poses a grave and growing direct threat to the United States, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and other countries near and far.”

Lost in the hubbub of the launch was the fact that North Korea must have a high degree of confidence in their missiles to make such a provocative firing, knowing that there wasn’t a chance that it would fail and land on Japanese soil – an act of war.

Therefore, it appears that North Korea will continue to test the US and its allies.  North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, just one day after his latest launch, vowed to fire more missiles in what he described as “just a curtain-raiser.”

North Korea says firing of missile over Japan was “first step” of Pacific military operations.  State media reported that Kim had said, “The current ballistic rocket launching drill like a real war is the first step of the military operation of the Korean People’s Army in the Pacific and a meaningful prelude to containing Guam.”

The threat is so real that Russian President Putin has ordered the evacuation of about 1,500 Russians from the 24 mile Russian/North Korean border.

Russia described the move as a “training exercise” after Moscow’s foreign ministry earlier said the crisis could “lead the world to the brink of a catastrophe.”


Why the lack of US response?

Earlier this month Trump warned North Korea would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it threatened the US.

After the latest launch, Trump twittered, “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!”

However, there wasn’t any major military response.  In fact, many were surprised that the US didn’t try to shoot the missile down with one of its ballistic missile defense systems.

There were several reasons for the lack of response.

The first reason might be that the US was aware immediately that the missile wasn’t a threat to the US or Japan.

American sensor technology can detect a missile launch within a couple of seconds and within a few seconds more, can determine the possible target.  Once the North Korean missile had “rolled over” and headed to its intended target, the US knew that it wasn’t targeting US territories and that it would pass over Japan.

Once the US knew it wasn’t a threat, it lessened the need to destroy the NK missile.

Another reason for not attempting to destroy the missile was probably the monetary cost.  Ballistic missile systems rely upon expensive missiles and trying to intercept the NK missile – when it wasn’t a threat – would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, the biggest reason was that if the interceptor had missed the NK missile, it would have been a political and diplomatic disaster for the US not to mention military embarrassment.  Not only would such a failure of the missile defense system worry American allies; especially South Korea and Japan, it would have emboldened North Korea and other US opponents around the world.

That concern about taking military action was clearly in the mind of the US defense secretary at a press conference.  Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday said that when it comes to North Korea, diplomatic solutions remain on the table after he was asked to respond to a tweet by President Trump that said “talking is not the answer.”

“No, we are never out of diplomatic solutions,” Mattis said in an exchange with pool reporters before meeting with his South Korean counterpart Song Young-moo in the Pentagon. “We continue to work together, and the minister and I share a responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations, our populations, and our interests, which is what we are here to discuss today.”

After initially saying “no” after being asked whether the U.S. was out of diplomatic solutions, the reporter pressed Mattis over what options can still be taken.

“Now you’re testing us here, you know,” Mattis joked.

The US is clearly able to intercept ballistic missiles.  One day after the latest North Korean missile launch, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Pacific shot down a medium-range ballistic missile during a test off Hawaii on Wednesday.

In the “complex missile defense flight test,” the USS John Paul Jones detected and tracked a test ballistic missile that had been launched from Kaui, Hawaii, then fired one of its onboard SM-6 missiles to intercept the target in its terminal phase, the Missile Defense Agency said in a release. It said it marked the second time an SM-6 missile has successfully intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile in a test.

However, a ballistic missile interception by the USS John Paul Jones doesn’t mean other ships in the fleet are competent enough to do the same.

One of the biggest problems for the US is the crisis in the US 7th Fleet caused by the recent collisions by the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald with commercial cargo ships.  Although some have wondered if there was some enemy hacking taking place that may have caused the problem, many Navy experts are beginning to suspect that it is training and the pace of operations that caused the collisions.  In fact, that was probably the real reason for the dismissal of the commander of the 7th Fleet last week.

In other words, although the US Navy is theoretically capable of intercepting and destroying a ballistic missile, the current state of the 7th Fleet might have made it miss – causing a major embarrassment for the US.

The problem goes back decades.

After the end of the Cold War, a declining naval budget forced the Navy to reduce the size of the US fleet and cut back on training and maintenance budgets.

In the case of training new naval officers, the cut back in training was dramatic.  After the pressures of the Vietnam War, Officer Candidate School (OCS) was six months long.  All officers, whether they were going to serve on a surface ship, a submarine, or going into a staff position had to be able to drive a surface ship, navigate by the stars, know damage control, and carry out the basic functions required of a surface naval officer.  After OCS, the officers designated for the surface fleet went to Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS).  This meant that the new officer going to a ship had about one year of training before going onboard his first ship.

That changed.  OCS was cut down to three months and courses like ship driving navigation, damage control, and ship operations were eliminated from the curriculum.   They were replaced by classes on race relations, sexual harassment, and suicide prevention.  SWOS was also eliminated for a while.  Officers were sent to ships with as little as three months of training and were expected to learn everything while serving onboard ship – in addition to the nearly 80 hours a week dedicated to standing watches and carrying out division officer duties.

Sea duty rotation was also cut.  During the Cold War, a commanding officer would have three tours on a ship before taking command of a naval warship (division officer, department head, executive officer).  Now they only have two (division officer and department head).  That means commanding officers now have about 2/3rds the training of commanding officers of a few decades ago.

The result is naval officers not as competent or capable as those of a decade before.

In order to compensate, naval personnel began to rely more upon technology rather than training or skill.

Many thinks this was the problem behind the recent collisions.  Those officers standing watch were relying on modern technology like radar and GPS rather than relying on training, common sense, and sailors who were stationed on deck and actually watching for ships that might collide with them.

Another problem is that the US 7th Fleet is being tasked with critical duties around Korea and the South China Sea, which are pushing personnel and equipment to the limit.

Given these problems with basic seamanship, it is easy to see how the Pentagon could be worried that a ship tasked with intercepting a North Korean missile might have a problem.  One of any number of issues like missile defense system maintenance, poor missile tracking, or inadequate response from the ship, could mean a failed interception and a loss of national prestige.

The situation of the US Navy was put bluntly by a retired naval officer in Proceedings, the official publication of the US Naval Institute, the professional organization of US Naval Officers.  In it, he said, “Individual-level training for both officers and enlisted personnel has been gutted…Officer career paths were changed to the detriment of readiness, with long stretches ashore to meet other requirements like postgraduate degrees, joint credit, individual argumentations, Washington-time, etc…Senior officers and enlisted personnel no longer can make up for the shortfalls elsewhere because they increasingly don’t know their jobs either.  General military training (GMT) and other similar requirements have exploded to the detriment of shipboard training programs.”

“If ships’ officers are not up to the fundamental task of safe navigation, how can they possibly be up to the task of complex warfighting?”

The Pentagon can’t assume that the rest of the 7th Fleet meets such standards as the John Paul Jones.  After all, if a ship can’t respond to a slow, lumbering cargo ship, how can they respond to a ballistic missile moving thousands of miles an hour?