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Asia-Pacific , Missile and Space

The Vulnerability of U.S. Military Pacific Command's Facilities to Missile Attacks and How this Serves North Korea's Deterrence Capabilities

Part One

September 01st - 2017

Image Credit : KCNA

While North Korea has recently aquired limited capabilities to strike the U.S. mainland's West coast with its recently tested Hwasong-14 missiles - its ability to strike critical U.S. military facilities across the Pacific serves as a lesser form of deterrence which have long been in place to deter U.S. preventative strikes until a more potent nuclear delivery capability against the mainland can be developed. The most critical U.S. military facilities in the Pacific, in order of increasing distance from Korea, are situated in Okinawa, the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, and Hawaii where the U.S. Pacific Command is based. The potential threat to these military facilities was highlighted best in August 2017 when North Korea threatened to turn Guam into a 'sea of fire' using its Hwasong-12 nuclear capable long range missiles. The Korean missile forces proceeded to conduct preparations and a test firing of a Hwasong-12 missile over Japan on August 29th. This was according to North Korea preparation for an attack on Guam - which they would carry out should the United States escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula further. These threats, accompanied by missile tests, came at a time when the United States, South Korea, and several other Western states were conducting military drills on the Korean Peninsula which trained for an attack on and occupation of North Korean territory. North Korea's ability to target U.S. facilities across the Pacific as a result of the significant advances to its nuclear and missile programs over the last decade means however that the country can respond to perceived threats to its sovereignty by demonstrating its deterrence capabilities as it never could before.

In a study conducted by the RAND Corporation think tank in 2017 U.S. forward bases in the Pacific were revealed to be "seriously threatened" by potential ballistic or cruise missiles attacks. Regarding U.S. bases' ability to withstand even conventional missile attacks the paper stated "the prospects are grim." While the paper specifically analysed the potential for Chinese attacks on U.S. military facilities, the missile capabilities considered are also possessed by North Korea - and the conclusions regarding vulnerability would apply equally to attacks by North Korean ballistic missiles. According to RAND's study, ballistic missiles such as those fielded by North Korea would prove far more difficult to intercept and a greater threat than cruise missiles. The RAND study primarily analysed conventional capabilities, and did not account for the possibility that missiles could carry nuclear warheads or chemical weapons as North Korea's arsenal can. Nuclear warheads would increase manyfold the vulnerability of U.S. facilities - allowing a single missile to deliver enough of a payload to destroy an entire military base.

As a potential target to which North Korea's leadership has referred specifically - Andersen Air Force Base in the North of Guam, currently being converted into a major forward operating base as part of the United States' 'Pivot to Asia' initiative, houses vulnerable bombers and missile carriers armed with nuclear weapons. B-52, B-1 and B-2 strategic bombers as well as Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and fighter jets, all critical to U.S. power projection in the region, are based on the small territory and are vulnerable to missile attacks. North Korean missile strikes can target the critical facilities and infrastructure - and possibly even destroy the aircraft on the ground. The airbase on Guam is particularly critical among U.S. Pacific facilities as it houses special storage facilities for the B-2 - the United States' most modern bomber and the only one designed with stealth capabilities. While it is a critical asset to U.S. attacks on any regional target, the extremely delicate bomber cannot be deployed without specially built climate controlled shelters - which are few and far between in the Pacific theatre. The loss of Guam therefore could well mean an inability to operate the B-2 in the Pacific. Anderson Air Force base additionally holds significant extra facilities which allow a far larger U.S. air fleet to deploy to and operate from Guam. Should the facilities on Guam be destroyed the United States would lose an irreplaceable forward operating base which allows it to conduct air and missile strikes across the Pacific - critical not just to target North Korea but also for potential strikes against China and Russia's Far East at a time of escalating tensions with both powers. Destruction of these capabilities alone by a North Korean attack would therefore significantly alter the regional balance of power in the Pacific against the United States.

Alongside Guam's airfields, its Apra Harbor Naval Base on the island's South coast is, alongside Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, one of only two major U.S. Naval facilities in the Pacific. Among its most critical roles Apra serves as a base of operations for Virginia Class SSN-774 nuclear submarines to operate throughout the Pacific Ocean. It also serves as a base for Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers. Should Apra base be targeted alongside Andersen air base the United States' power projection capabilities in the Pacific will be crippled - likely beyond recovery. The facilities are in range of North Korea's successfully tested Pukkuksong 2, Musudan, Hwasong 12, Hwasong 14 and the somewhat dated Taepodong-2 - all of which have the capability to carry a nuclear payload. 6,000 US military personnel are currently stationed on Guam, and further deployments of both equipment and personnel are accelerating. This includes the deployment of six B-1B bombers in August, and the 20,000 elite US marines set to be relocated to Apra base from Okinawa in the near future. The U.S. military has recently spend $250 on new facilities for munitions storage, satellite communications facilities, housing for new personnel and surveillance drone hangars. The strategic value of the small American territory as a military target for North Korean missile attacks is set only to grow alongside the country's advancing strike capabilities - making it an increasingly ludicrous target for Korean missile strikes.

Continued in Part Two

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