By Chad 0’Carroll
News emerged today on the Globes.il news website that suggests Israel expects South Korea to be potentially interested in acquiring Iron Dome technology if talks with Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. about the purchase of four patrol boats for Israel’s navy prove successful. As conflict in Gaza continues to escalate, news about the repeated success of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in protecting the country from Hamas’ rocket threat continues to make the system more attractive.
With Israeli officials saying that 80-90 percent of attempted intercepts have now succeeded, some are now citing Iron Dome’s record as evidence that Ronald Reagan’s dreams of building a space based missile defense might have been well founded. And if Iron Dome proves missile defense really works, might South Korea now be looking at a potential defense against the threat of North Korea’s wide ranging projectile arsenal?
Alas, anyone hoping that Iron Dome might be a quick fix to North Korea’s missile threat will unfortunately be mistaken. That’s because the missiles owned by North Korea’s military vary significantly from the type of rockets possessed by the likes of Israeli’s local foes – Hamas and Hezbollah.
Investing huge resources into their development since the early 1970s, North Korea today possesses a large arsenal of SCUD variant ballistic missiles (Hwasong series). Bringing most of South Korea into range, these missiles provide Pyongyang with a delivery system for kinetic and non-conventional payloads (nuclear, chemical, biological). Travelling at several times the speed of sound and at extremely high altitude, it not hard to understand why they are difficult to defend against. Indeed, these characteristics allow North Korea to hit targets extremely quickly and in the event of carrying a non-conventional payload, with potentially extremely deadly results.
In contrast to North Korea’s current ballistic missile capability, Israel faces a missile threat of a very different nature. Although some foreign made rockets within the arsenal of Hamas can travel up to 75km, the majority of its “Grad” type devices have a range of just 20km. Often home-made, these small rockets carry kinetic payloads of between just 5-75kg, meaning their destructive impact is relatively low when compared to WMD carrying ballistic missiles. And because they are deployed using primitive launching technology, these short-range rockets fly at low speed and low altitude – making them relatively easier to defend against.
Debates have long-swirled in military circles about the utility of ballistic missile defense systems. While some argue that with sufficient infrastructure these systems could theoretically intercept the types of missiles North Korea possesses either at launch or in their final phase, others suggest that much like trying to shoot a bullet with another bullet, this type of threat is almost impossible to defend against. In contrast, the low-speed and low-altitude characteristics of the rockets that Israel faces mean they are much easier to intercept after launch than a ballistic missile. Having kicked off the Iron Dome project after the Second Lebanon War of 2006, it is therefore understandable that Israel was able to enjoy the level of success it did in just six years.
But while Iron Dome will be of little use in defending South Korea from North Korea’s ballistic missiles, one area that it could prove useful in is intercepting artillery shells like those used in the bombardment of Yeonpyeong, two years ago. That’s because Iron Dome has a second role beyond intercepting rockets: to counter the flight of 155mm artillery shells and mortar rounds.
As we know, North Korea possesses thousands of artillery units, many of which are positioned strategically along the DMZ. Although Iron Dome would likely be quickly overwhelmed in the case of a large scale simultaneous artillery attack, it could nevertheless be a potentially useful defense for South Korea against small-scale attacks such as the one witnessed at Yeonpyeong two years ago. This is all the the more true when considering that Iron Dome is able to respond to multiple threats simultaneously – something that would have been useful in intercepting the several artillery units North Korea used to attack the island last year.
Time will tell if South Korea decides to purchase the Iron Dome defense system and it seems that much relies on whether or not Israel is able to buy the naval craft from the ROK that it currently desires. But whether the extremely expensive price tag will be worth it for South Korea (each battery costs $50 million while the individual missiles between $40,000 to $100,000) to defend against what could be rare small scale attacks is hard to judge – especially when considering the North Korean ballistic threat will remain.
Chad 0’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Israel Defense Forces photostream on flickr Creative Commons.