Defenses against ballistic missiles are often tightly linked in the public debate with attacks using nuclear weapons. But missile defenses would not counter all potential nuclear attacks, nor even some of the arguably more likely nuclear attacks on the Korean peninsula. Nor are all ballistic missiles that threaten South Korea armed with nuclear weapons.
Missile defenses are also sometimes portrayed as implausible, futuristic systems – quite different from other military forces. This leads some commentators to discuss missile defense as a symbolic capability, not an operational one.
But these and other common assumptions are wrong and misleading, particularly in the case of South Korea. Defenses against ballistic missiles should be considered differently here, much more in the manner that other military systems are considered. Indeed, defending against ballistic missile attacks seems to offer new capabilities to South Korea, such as countering attacks on certain military targets, which might be important in future conflicts.
Importantly though, the discussion of missile defenses must be broadened. Consideration of defenses against ballistic missiles should not just be about certain hardware systems – usually radars and interceptors. Other capabilities, such as hardening bases or passive defenses, are vital parts of countering some attacks. Those smaller, but important investments must be included to fully gain the value of the missile defenses themselves.
This talk will set this context, first discussing the various misleading assumptions on missile defense and why they are inappropriate for South Korea. Then, it will draw some important implications for missile defense in South Korea, as the choices South Korea makes should change depending on this context – even the choices in such items as interceptors.