Tuesday saw North Korea test-launch what it described as an “ICBM” into the East Sea (Sea of Japan). Less than 24 hours later, South Korea fired a number of ballistic missiles into the East Sea in retaliation.
Much of the world is now busy analyzing the North’s ICBM, but many are ignoring an equally important question: how the ROK-U.S. could have managed to conduct a response launch in such a short space of time.
Currently, the North has many ballistic missiles with a range far greater than 300 kilometers, the estimate range of the ROK’s Hyunmoo-2 and the U.S.’s Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), both of which were fired on Wednesday morning.
While they may not reach as far as the North Korean system, what counts for the ROK-U.S. missiles is their accuracy, mobility, and ability to be fired at very short notice: crucial elements that are far more important than just having a long reach.
DAY OF THE LAUNCH
We can largely surmise what might have happened on Tuesday when the news reached Seoul that North Korea had conducted a missile test. Soon after detecting it, South Korea’s top brass would have given the order to the ROK-U.S. military: prepare for a launch.
Units would have moved about a few hundred kilometers from where the missiles were stored to the launch site near the East Sea, and fired the systems as they were ordered.
Considering the timeline of the events that followed, all this was done within 12 to 15 hours of the North’s ICBM launch, an impressive record during peacetime in South Korea. Such a launch by the ROK is only possible with high-mobility by the missile system and a high level of training by personnel.
Another downside of the current North Korean system is its accuracy
As I said before, the North Koreans might have more far-reaching missiles. But if the North were under the same time pressure as the South, then most likely, many of their outdated TEL (Transporter, Erector, and Launcher) systems would have malfunctioned, making them immobile.
Most of the North Korea TELs we see are remnants of the Soviet era or have been converted from Chinese large wood haulers, systems that can’t assure vehicle mobility when mounted with heavy missiles for long distance travel.
Even under the assumption that the North could somehow manage to arrive at the launch site quickly with all of their equipment intact, they would not be able to launch as quickly as South Korea and the United States.
During their July 4 launch, it was observed that the North Koreans removed their missile from their TEL – likely to prevent it from being damaged by the heat from the engine.
In contrast, the ROK-U.S. TEL only needed to erect its missile canister on the vehicle.
Another downside of the current North Korean system is its accuracy. ROK-U.S. systems can strike within a few meters from the target, but it is widely believed that North Korean guidance systems are not as accurate.
The North does not have access to the military GPS signal system that the ROK-U.S. does, and the accuracy becomes an even more important factor when the missile is loaded with a warhead weighing several hundred kilograms.
Since all ROK-U.S. ballistic missiles use an enclosed launcher canister system, which protects missiles from the outside environment, they don’t need thorough inspection before launch.
Seoul and Washington may have purposefully fired their missiles right under North Korea’s nose
However, most North Korean missiles are exposed, meaning that they have to be thoroughly inspected before a launch and, with an exposed system, they have much higher chances of being damaged, while in storage or transportation to the launch site.
All these factors suggest that, in an actual wartime situation, the North Korean missile failure rate would be much higher than that of South Korea and the United States.
Seoul has remained secretive about the progress of its missile program. Among many of the crucial details that it has not revealed is the exact location of Wednesday’s launch.
But soon after the photos were released to the public, some pointed out that the joint launch had possibly been held less than nine kilometers from the southern side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).
It is safe to say that Seoul and Washington may have purposefully fired their missiles right under North Korea’s nose. This location becomes even more symbolic as it was originally North Korean territory before the Korean War – located above the 38th parallel.
This action, while Seoul may have remained silent about it, would have sent a clear message to the North Korean leadership.
Another achievement of this test was that South Korea appears to have, to some extent, overcome its long history of stagnant military bureaucracy, which has often undermined the country’s ability to take the necessary action against the North.
One could easily guess how much “bureaucratic hell” it would create if the order was given to move and use military equipment within 24 hours. Until now it was thought that such a test would have taken considerable time due to the infamous the ROK bureaucracy.
For example, if Seoul in the past said “we’re doing this to counter the current North Korean threats,” then what they meant was that it was going through long bureaucratic processes – to make it look like they were doing something.
However, Wednesday’s joint test was different. It’s well known that ballistic missile launches have long been considered one of the ROK’s favorite ways to respond to North Korean missile or nuclear tests, but conducting a launch within 24 hours after the North is impressive.
What makes this test even more interesting was the fact that it was a joint measure by both South Korea and the U.S. It’s not an easy task to put the two armies’ most important strategic assets on the Korean peninsula in the same place, moving them a few hundred kilometers within such a short space of time.
Many worried that the North’s ICBM launch was partially aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington, but Tuesday’s test showed South Korea’s efficiency and military superiority. If Pyongyang were hoping to see the crack between the U.S. and South Korea, I would say that this joint launch proved otherwise.
JH Ahn contributed to this article.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: korea.net
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