Experts say most missile tests are normal and routine
North Korea's accelerated bid for nuclear weapons has intensified reactions to missile launches and threats against the US and elsewhere
If the world appears to be a tableau of endless ballistic missile tests of late, there is ample evidence to point to increasingly militarized nations hurling rockets across the sky.
Over the past year, countries that are beholden to international treaties – and some that are banned from most kinds of missile attempts – have been test firing ballistic missiles.
The latest nation to join the slew of recent missile launchers is India, which on Thursday said it successfully test-fired a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM]. Experts said the weapon was capable of reaching China, a country India is in an ongoing economic and political battle with for regional dominance.
India’s defense ministry called the test of its nuclear-capable Agni-V missile a “major boost” to the country’s defense capabilities.
Defense experts, however, say that this type of testing of missiles is routine and expected. What’s different today is North Korea. The reclusive regime has accelerated its bid to attain nuclear status. In the past year, it went into overdrive, firing 23 missiles in 16 tests, and those tests bring the world ever closer to the dangerous prospect of a nuclear missile strike.
False alarms and wrong buttons
Japanese citizens had been living in a state of high alert through most of the past year when just this week public broadcaster NHK issued an alert to phone users with the NHK app installed on their devices telling them that Pyongyang had likely launched a missile that might be headed their way. Past North Korean missiles soared over Japan and landed in waters off the Japanese coast.
But this time, the order for people to go underground in anticipation of a possible strike was a mistake. NHK issued an on-air apology within minutes.
Not so for the people of Hawaii, who a few days earlier scrambled for cover after receiving emergency alert notifications of an incoming “ballistic missile threat.”
North Korea has been boasting of its increased capability of being able to reach the US mainland, and that threat seemed imminent as residents of Hawaii hunkered in shelters for 38 minutes before another alert went out telling everyone the initial message had been a false alarm. The error was blamed on an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, who was said to have “pushed the wrong button.”
“If that alarm had gone off a year ago, the reaction would have been: a stupid person hit the wrong button,” said Steve Hildreth, a specialist in US and foreign national security programs at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C. “But right now, people believe North Korea has the ability to send a missile to Hawaii, and that’s played into the reactions to the false alarm.”
“For decades, we’ve lived with the possibility of nuclear conflict in the [Asia-Pacific] region, that North Korea’s missiles have a short range capability to carry nuclear weapons,” said Hildreth, who specializes in missile defense, missile proliferation and national security. “The game changer is now the threat of North Korea being able to hit the US directly. That’s what all this major concern is, and that’s less than a year old.”
‘It’s pretty routine’
The US, Russia and China have all reportedly test-fired ballistic missiles in 2017. Pyongyang is banned from doing so under United Nations sanctions.
“It was not unusual to do several test launches a year. We’d pick random missiles from the field, pull it out of there, take the warheads out and ship it to our test range,” said Paul Merzlak, a former ICBM crew commander and now editorial director at Naval Institute Press. “You have to do it to make sure the stuff works the way you want it to, so even for someone like us, [the US military], we’re still testing these things.”
US military bases often publicize the tests before and after they are conducted. Vandenberg Air Force Base tests defense systems as well as ballistic missiles at its site north of Santa Barbara in California.
Hildreth says the Santa Barbara site runs tests several times a year. “It’s pretty routine what they do,” he told CNN. “Both the US and Russia continue to modernize and test our ICBMs.”
India is believed to have around 120 to 130 nuclear warheads in its arsenal, according to the Federation of American Scientists, compared to the several thousand in the US stockpile.
Its latest test didn’t demonstrate any “new capability,” according to Vipiin Narang, associate professor of political science at MIT, but was “simply a developmental test before India inducts it into operational range.”
It may have been a routine exercise for New Delhi, but the test would likely strain relations with Beijing, which has been in a protracted border dispute with India over the Himalayan region of Doklam.
In Iran, meanwhile, ballistic missile tests continue to the ire of the US, Israel and other nations that had pushed for greater sanctions against Tehran and the inclusion of ballistic missile programs as part of the nuclear accord.
In September 2017, Iran successfully tested a new ballistic missile mere hours after unveiling the weapon in a military parade in the streets of Tehran. Called the Khorramshahr missile, the weapon has a range of 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) and can carry multiple warheads, according to Press TV. It is said to be easily capable of reaching both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
US President Donald Trump, who has criticized the nuclear accord for not doing more to curb Iran’s ballistic missile program, nevertheless agreed to waive key sanctions that the US lifted as part of the deal. Last year, he had argued that Iran was violating the agreement and wanted to establish sanctions that would be instituted if Iran continued to launch ballistic missiles.
One part of the world where missile launches were not routine, however, was in Yemen.
In November, Saudi Arabia successfully intercepted a ballistic missile over its capital, fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen who had targeted the international airport in Riyadh. Another fired in December targeted a residential area south of the capital. The Saudis say they intercepted that one as well. They and the US blame the Iranian regime for supplying the weapons, claiming Hezbollah militants smuggled the Iranian-modified Scud missiles to the rebels in Yemen from Iran.
The tests will continue
Hildreth said that since Kim Jong Un came to power, the regime in Pyongyang has “greatly accelerated the pace” of its missile tests. That is unlikely to abate until North Korea achieves its ambition of nuclear capability.
A “strategic pause” notwithstanding, Pyongyang remains undeterred, he said.
“The biggest legit threat that we have to be concerned about is that North Korea seems determined to develop a capability to strike the US with a nuclear weapon and I don’t see that can be negotiated on their part; they are determined to go down that path,” he said.
So more missile tests are on the way, even if North Korea is potentially pausing its program to take part in the Winter Olympics in Seoul.
“I would be very surprised if North Korea did not continue testing its long-range ballistic missiles by the end of this spring,” Hildreth said.