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Deterrence Capabilities of U.S. Adversaries; Is Iran a Much Softer Target than North Korea? Part One - Ballistic Missiles and Nuclear Warheads

July 30th - 2018

With a gradual easing of tensions between North Korea and the United States in the months following Pyongyang’s final intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests at the end of 2018, with the East Asian state having since ceased such weapons testing and refocused its efforts towards manufacturing more warheads and missiles based on recently tested designs while Washington has reluctantly come to view its adversary’s attaining of a viable deterrent as a fait accompli, American rhetoric and its attentions have increasingly turned away from the Korean Peninsula. The Islamic Republic of Iran in particular appears to have replaced North Korea as the prime target for American rhetoric, and the country is speculated to be the most likely target for an American attack. According to a number of recent reports, the U.S. Trump administration may well be considering strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities in the near future following its withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal - something which could well bring about an open war with the Middle Eastern state and America's greatest military engagement since Vietnam - possibly since Korea in the early 1950s. 

The second surviving member of the ”˜Axis of Evil,’ and one of four nations named as a ”˜great power adversary’ by the United States, Iran has long posed the primary threat to Western dominance of the Middle East - deploying a vast and ever growing ballistic missile arsenal capable of threatening the military facilities of America and its allies throughout the region while aiding Syria, Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq and possibly even the Yemeni Ansurullah coalition in conflicts against the Western Bloc and their allies. As rhetoric between Tehran and Washington continues to escalate, it has been brought to serious question whether their conflict will mirror U.S. tensions with North Korea the year prior - with threats of American military action by that stage having always been largely empty due to the impossibility of waging such a war - or whether military action by the United States and its allies against the Islamic Republic may be imminent.

A number of critical factors indicate that Iran, unlike North Korea, could well be a viable target for U.S. military intervention with considerably fewer losses. These are covered as follows:

Missile Forces

Even before 2017, North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities were long far superior to those of Iran and posed a considerably greater challenge to the United States military in the event of a war in the Pacific. With Iran’s ballistic missiles heavily based on North Korean designs, from the Hwasong-5 serving as the Shahab-1 to the Rodong as the Shahab-3 and the Musudan as the Khorramshahr, the East Asian state has remained well ahead in its capabilities and has since the 1980s developed a lethal and diverse missile deterrent force which is among the most capable in the world. While some of the most prolific developments in the Korean missile program would take place in 2017, by the end of 2016 the country was already fully capable of striking critical U.S. military facilitates on Guam and across Japan and South Korea - making use of advanced platforms such as the Musudan and Pukkuksong-2 as well as a vast arsenal of older missiles such as the Rodong and solid fuelled Toksa. Able to deliver conventional, nuclear or chemical warheads with a lethality far surpassing any other platform ever used in war, Korea’s missile forces have posed a considerable threat to U.S. military assets not only on the Korean Peninsula - but also well beyond it making the logistics necessary to support such a war effort extremely challenging. Considering the poor combat performances of the most advanced U.S. air defence systems against missiles far inferior to those fielded by North Korea, this poses a considerable risk to invaluable American military facilities across the Pacific - which if destroyed in a new Korean War would provide other American ”˜great power adversaries’ in the strategically critical region, namely Russia and China, with a considerable advantage and undermine the U.S. position in the Pacific.

Though fielding a considerable missile force, Iran not only lacks the weapons of mass destruction - either nuclear or chemical - to mount on them, but also lacks an advanced platforms comparable to those in the North Korean arsenal. With North Korea fielding one of the largest ballistic missile submarine fleets in the world, capable of deploying nuclear armed ballistic missiles against U.S. targets in Hawaii, Alaska and possibly even the West Coast of the American mainland well before the successful testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017, the threat posed by the Korean missile forces have long been substantial should the United States initiate military action against the country. Considering the capabilities of the Korean missile forces today - this asset alone is effectively a disqualifying factor when considering the prospects for an American attack on the country. This is far from the case for Iran however.

Nuclear Warheads

The United States and its allies have applied considerable pressure to the Islamic Republic of Iran to ensure it cannot obtain nuclear arms for good reason. While Iran’s leadership has outlawed the development of weapons of mass destruction, also including chemical and biological weapons, nuclear warheads would if acquired serve as a highly effective force multiplier for a country’s ballistic missile and even its artillery forces in a tactical role. A heavier warhead or hydrogen bomb mounted on submarine launched or intercontinental ranged ballistic missile - as in the case of North Korea’s Pukkuksong-1, Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 - can also provide a country with a strategic deterrent which can rule out military action by a hostile power. While North Korea has deployed nuclear weapons since 2006, possibly longer, and has from the program’s outset sought to miniaturise the warheads for deployment of ballistic missiles, Iran lacks such capabilities which limit the danger posed by its ballistic missile forces. While the risk of initiating the world’s first nuclear war, which could see hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans killed, with the death toll rising as Korean missiles and warheads have grown more sophisticated and have been produced in greater numbers, is a prohibitive cost which serves to effectively rule out military action against Pyongyang - this is hardly the case for a conflict with Iran.

Continued in Part Two

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