Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Asia’s escalating missile race

Last year saw a surge in testing and deployment of both ballistic and cruise missile technology throughout the Indo-Pacific.

South Korea testing the Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missile, September 2017 (Photo: South Korean Defense Ministry/Getty Images)
South Korea testing the Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missile, September 2017 (Photo: South Korean Defense Ministry/Getty Images)

If the Cold War was one long arms race, the modern era could be accurately described as an arms jog. Countries are defined less by how many nuclear warheads they have, and more by what they can do with them. This is particularly the case in Australia’s immediate region, where a significant missile competition is underway.

Last year saw a step up in the pace of missile testing and the operationalisation and deployment of capabilities that have been in development for some time. North Korea’s missile program and the responses of South Korea and Japan, as well as the successful testing of several long-in-development systems from Pakistan, India, and China are examples of this. The leaked draft of the US government’s Nuclear Posture Review only adds to the pile.

Last week, India chalked up another successful test of its Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with a range of more than 5000 kilometres. In a concerning sign of escalation, during the Doklam standoff with China last year, India’s political leadership reportedly inquired about the deployment of the INS Arihant, one of New Delhi’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

Pakistan is also quietly developing its own ballistic missile capability. The ‘Ababeel’, with a reported range of 2200 kilometres, was successfully tested early last year. Pakistan claims it has been equipped with multiple independent re-entry vehicle technology (MIRV), and another medium-range missile, the Shaheen-III, is also in development.

China’s long-range missile programs are fairly well-documented, but there are some notable new developments. The first is the recent adoption of MIRV technology by the People's Liberation Army on its DF-5 ICBMs, which in effect equips each missile with multiple warheads. Another is the likely deployment in 2018 of China’s new road-mobile ICBM system, the DF-41, which has a reported range of 12,000 kilometres.

In December China tested the first ballistic missile system to incorporate a hypersonic element. The D-17, expected to enter full operational service by 2020, can reach Mach 5 and has a range of several thousand kilometres.

The second new development is the revelation that China is working on an air-launched version of the DF-21D, an anti-ship ballistic missile. Last May the head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency testified that China is upgrading its aircraft (likely a new version of the H-6 bomber) to carry ballistic missiles, some of which may be nuclear-capable.

North Korea’s race to develop nuclear delivery capabilities, such as intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as a submarine-based system, are well known. The successful testing of the Hwasong-14 in July and the Hwasong-15 in November marked North Korea's entry into the global ICBM club. By most estimates, Pyongyang has up to 11 types of ballistic missile either deployed or under development.

Since the early 1970s, South Korea has been developing its own short-range ballistic missiles based on an early US design. The missile program – the Hyunmoo-2 being the latest version – is controlled through a treaty with the US that allows Washington to set the missiles' range and payload. Seoul last year began lobbying the Trump administration to loosen the payload restrictions beyond 500 kilograms.

These are the region’s ballistic missile developments over the past 18 months only. Keeping pace is the advancement and proliferation of both conventional and nuclear-capable cruise missiles (unlike ballistic missiles, cruise missiles are self-navigated and maintain a flatter flight trajectory).

The nuclear-capable BrahMos supersonic cruise missile jointly developed by Russia and India was successfully tested from an Indian Su-30 MKI fighter in November, presaging a significant "deep strike" capability for the Indian Air Force. New Delhi’s induction into the Missile Technology Control Regime in 2016 has allowed Indian engineers to reportedly double the missile’s range to 800 kilometres. A hypersonic version, the BrahMos-II, is also in development.

Pakistan has invested heavily in nuclear-capable cruise missile systems in recent years. The most well known is the Babur family of systems, medium-range cruise missiles in service since 2010. Last year the Babur 3 was successfully tested from an ‘underwater mobile platform’, more or less completing Pakistan’s nuclear triad.

With the completion of its satellite network, Beijing now has the capability to integrate high-precision cruise missiles into its regional defence strategy. China fields an array of cruise missiles, some of which are reportedly nuclear-capable. China is also racing to incorporate advances in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies into a new generation of missiles able to compete with similar efforts in the US.

Driven by the rapid advance of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program, US allies are exploring land-attack cruise missile capabilities. Japan has announced its intention to add the air-launched, Norwegian-made Joint Strike Missile (JSM) to its inventory, giving it a stand-off strike capability. Considering the Japan Self-Defence Force has traditionally been limited to munitions with 300-kilometre ranges, the 500 kilometre-range JSM is a significant departure.

There were also rumours that Japan was considering purchasing US-made Tomahawk cruise missiles. It now appears that the Japanese Ministry of Defense has added a land-attack capability to an existing missile development program, dubbing it the ‘Japanese Tomahawk’.

In 2013 Seoul agreed to purchase 180 German-made Taurus air-to-surface cruise missiles. With a range of 500 kilometres, the Taurus is a critical piece of South Korea’s ‘kill-chain’ strategy in the event of a conflict with North Korea. The Taurus would be carried by South Korean F-15K Slam Eagles and targeted at North Korea’s leadership and command and control nodes in an effort to "decapitate" Pyongyang’s military command. South Korea last year released a YouTube video demonstrating the missiles as well as the full operationalisation of the system, and in October South Korea decided to purchase an additional 90 missiles. Seoul also has an indigenous cruise missile program, the Hyunmoo-3.

The US is a significant player, and is working on several new nuclear-capable and conventional ballistic and cruise missile systems. The leaked Nuclear Posture Review forecasts an intention to install low-yield warheads on its sea-based ballistic missiles and start a new program for a sea-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile.

Missile proliferation is a clear sign of an ongoing arms race. Last year saw a surge in testing and deployment of both ballistic and cruise missile technology throughout the Indo-Pacific. In all likelihood, maintaining strategic stability in 2018 will only become more difficult.

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