MACK WILLIAMS. North Korea ICBM threat to Australia.

Jul 11, 2017

The DPRK’s recent ICBM test raises some extremely serious concerns for Australia which will need to be carefully considered by the Australian Government before it rushes off into decision making on the run as has been the case in the past week of hyperventilation. Any attraction of the DPRK to include Australia as a target for its ICBM’s would derive more from US defence presence in Australia than from any factors inherently Australian. 

The past week has witnessed an avalanche of often conflicting comment on the threat raised by the DPRK’s ICBM test – not only from the US but also from here in Australia. Discussion around the G20 Summit in Hamburg between the US, China and Russia seems to have confused the situation and debate in the Security Council has run into the usual roadblocks. Much now centres on a blame game and bluff poker. How much has China tried to rein in the DPRK’s missile and nuclear ambitions – especially after reports that bilateral China:DPRK trade has risen 40% this year?? What real options does President Trump have up his sleeve? Will these include military strikes against the DPRK – where US statements at various levels proved to be contradictory – presumably deliberately? Will the sanctions be expanded to cover China and other countries who continue to trade with the DPRK? Will allies be expected to follow suit? All of which poses some very difficult questions for Australian policy makers – especially with the Prime Minister absent overseas and a scary bumbling performance by Barnaby Joyce in his stead.

Emergence of a threat to Northern Australia by the seemingly unstoppable DPRK ICBM development quickly panicked the commentariat and hyperventilated local media. As we have forecast in these columns, such a threat has long been destined but over a slightly longer time frame. The Canberra defence security elite should have been preparing Ministers for it. The 2016 Defence White Paper recognised the potential for an ICBM threat but argued that Australian anti-missile defence should concentrate on shorter range missiles targeting ADF operations in the region – which in practice means Chinese rather than DPRK missiles.

The convergence of two new factors has now elevated the relevance of anti-missile defences in Northern Australia:

. the DPRK’s demonstrated success in the enhancement of its missile capability – if not yet to full range ICBM’s but that now appears probable

.the increasing importance which the US is attaching to the defence-related facilities in Northern Australia. These are being used by larger and more frequent deployments and transit flights – all quietly encouraged by Canberra. The area is transforming into a de facto “US base” as the southernmost link in the US anti-China containment arc from Guam (now that Duterte has prevented the build back of Subic and Clark in the Philippines). And all of this has been reinforced by a string of US generals and admirals visiting Australia of late to spruik greater US: Australian joint military activity in South East Asia to the Australian public.

So far, commentators have ignored the geographic proximity of Nurrungar and Pine Gap to the arc of the DPRK ICBM’s potential range in Australia. DPRK planners would surely not have failed to note them as potentially prime targets for any attack on vital US interests. Indeed any DPRK ICBM threat to Northern Australia would probably derive more from US activity and presence in the area than anything distinctly Australian.

So what should we be doing? Consider the facts:

  • US development of anti ICBM capability has a lengthy and extraordinarily expensive history without yet achieving a fully guaranteed system.
  • It would require a very sophisticated and costly support system of target acquisition etc. Presumably this was recognised by the decision not to go down this path in the 2016 Defence White Paper.
  • the US would expect Australia to foot the bill – or most of it. As it is trying to force on the ROK for the THAAD deployment
  • it would take a long time to customise and install
  • the THAAD deployed in the ROK would be no answer for an ICBM defence in Northern Australia

This would suggest that while we should try to keep aware of the US’s continually developing anti ICBM technology such a deployment to Darwin or environs is not a realistic option – as the drift of official Australian commentary in recent days seems to reflect. This should not affect the work on a capability to protect against shorter range missiles – which would not likely be from the DPRK anyway. And as some wags have already suggested the presence of a Chinese company’s management of the Darwin port could well prove to be the most effective defence against DPRK attack!

There have also been suggestions from some leading hawks in Canberra that we should be deploying ADF personnel to the ROK to work alongside the US:ROK anti-missile forces “ to learn the game” or, even more ill-considered, a token military force to join the already massive US/ROK force stationed in the ROK. We have usually had a small contingent of ADF participate in the major annual US: ROK military exercises but knowledge of this has been kept from the Australian public. It has been trumpeted in the US and ROK and picked up by KCNA (North Korean media). Such a move would have to be negotiated with an ROK government (a SOFA etc) which appears somewhat wary of foreign forces operating in the ROK. But what impact would it have? We do not have much of the level of sophistication or resources required to escalate the US; ROK joint threat to the DPRK. But more importantly we would probably have to place our force under US: ROK command and therefore the whims of President Trump!!

Much the same care should apply to any commentary from us about trade sanctions on China! But we might be able to argue to the Chinese quietly that their inability to rein in the DPRK’s military adventurism as it comes to threaten Australia inevitably forces us to become even more embedded in the US defence umbrella.

Mack Williams, Former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines and the Republic of Korea and Co-Chair of the Korea Research Institute (UNSW) Advisory Board  

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