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North Korea: What are the military options?

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A missile is seen taking off from a grassy field in a burst of burning fuel and smokeImage copyright
KCNA

Image caption

North Korea’s official news agency distributed this photo, purportedly of the rocket launch

President Trump has said “all options are on the table” after North Korea fired a missile over Japan. So what could military action against Kim Jong-un’s regime actually look like?

As a ballistic missile passed over the Japanese island of Hokkaido residents were warned to take cover.

The launch was a provocative act, which has been followed by warnings from the North Korean regime that it was just a “first step”.

The UN and several nations have imposed sanctions on North Korea, while President Trump said he was considering the next steps.

But while the US has unrivalled military strength, the range of options it actually has against the hermit country are limited.

Option 1: ‘Enhanced Containment’

This is the least risky but arguably least effective option available since it would simply build on deployments that have long been in place and have had little success in deterring North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programme.

The US could move additional ground forces into South Korea, including ground-based missile defences such as the controversial Thaad system, heavy artillery and armoured vehicles, to demonstrate its willingness to use force to back up its demands.

However, South Korea has halted the current Thaad deployment and is strongly against any increases in US ground forces, because of concerns about provoking the North.

Indeed, North Korea would almost certainly interpret such moves as a prelude to a ground invasion, given its reactions to annual joint exercises between the US and South Korean militaries.

China and Russia would no doubt strenuously object too and both have the power to make life difficult for the US in other areas such as Eastern Europe and the South and East China Seas.

The US Navy could increase its presence around Korea, sending more cruisers and destroyers able to shoot down ballistic missiles and, possibly, deploying a second carrier strike group.

Alongside the naval options, the US Air Force could bolster its forward-based airpower, with more attack fighter squadrons, support tankers, surveillance aircraft and heavy bombers at bases in Guam, South Korea itself and Japan.

However, the US Navy and US Air Force are both extremely heavily tasked around the world and are feeling the strain of well over a decade of continuous high-intensity deployments in support of operations, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More importantly, perhaps, time is on North Korea’s side, since an enhanced US military presence would not itself force a halt to its rapidly maturing nuclear weapons programme and ballistic missile testing.

And any statement of intent to shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles which travel outside the country’s airspace would itself require a major increase in US Navy presence around the peninsula.

North Korean has a large ballistic missile arsenal and US interceptor missiles are extremely expensive and available in limited quantities aboard each ship.

It would, therefore, be possible for the North to overwhelm and deplete the US Navy’s stocks, leaving them vulnerable and forced to return to port.

Such a policy would therefore represent an extremely expensive and probably unsustainable challenge to North Korea, as well as a dangerous escalation towards direct military conflict.

Option 2: Surgical strikes

The US Air Force and US Navy possess the most advanced surgical strike capabilities on Earth.

Using volleys of precision Tomahawk missiles fired from submarines off the North Korean coastline and attacks by B-2 stealth bombers against key North Korean nuclear sites and ballistic missile facilities may seem like an attractive proposition, at…


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