Danger closer: A game change that needs to reset U.S. national defense alertment

Even more interesting times.

Probably the strangest consequence from two recent North Korean missile tests, on 5 and 11 January 2022, was a pair of reported U.S. events that appear to have been in reaction to them.

One U.S. event got much more coverage than the other.  It was on the afternoon of 10 January on the U.S. West coast, minutes after the missile launch from North Korea at 7:27 AM in the Korean time zone on 11 January. 

At “around 2:30 PM PST” on 10 January, the FAA issued a ground stop for air traffic throughout sectors on the West coast.  The North Korean missile launch occurred three minutes before the ground stop order, whose reality and authenticity The Drive’s “War Zone” blog has since verified through contact with persons involved at the receiving end of the order.  Sources confirmed they believed the stop order to be related to national security.

The order resulted in a traffic halt that kept aircraft grounded for some 15 minutes on the West coast, and even reportedly caused some airborne aircraft to be told to land.

Surrounding the event, NORAD had issued an alert on the missile launch, but according to Tyler Rogoway, as well as mainstream media reporting, NORAD quickly determined that the missile posed no threat to the United States.  After about 15 minutes, the ground stop order was lifted by the FAA.  By then, the North Korean missile’s hypersonic boost-glide vehicle had splashed into the Sea of Japan (or East Sea, as South Korea calls it).

In an odd twist, according to Rogoway, NORAD misstated where the missile splashed:  “Just 16 minutes later [after the launch], NORAD advised that the ballistic missile’s aerial maneuvering vehicle payload had splashed down in waters far to the east of Japan and that normal operation could proceed, effectively ending the ground stop. In reality, the vehicle actually splashed down in the waters to the west of Japan.”

Rogoway’s follow-up to the original report (the follow-up is at the link above) indicated that sources confirmed the FAA ground stop was linked to the missile launch.

Previously, around the time of the 5 January launch by North Korea, soldiers at Fort Greeley (Fairbanks, Alaska) were ordered to evacuate their workplaces and take shelter.  Local reporter Tim Ellis, for TV9/KUAC, stated that the soldiers were evacuated on 4 January and given the “shelter” order for a duration of about 15 minutes, similar to the length of the FAA ground stop the following week.

Ellis was unable to confirm that the evacuation/shelter order was linked to the missile launch.  But it was unusual, and does not appear to have had any connection with a separate drill scheduled for the following day (5 January Alaska time).

There is less precision about the time of the 5 January missile launch; U.S. defense reporting on it was actually rather vague, and media coverage in South Korea and Japan referred to the launch time only as “early morning.”  It was probably close to the same time as the launch on 11 January, which was at 7:27 AM on the Korean Peninsula.

The first missile launch was announced by Pyongyang as a hypersonic boost-glide missile test, but analysts in Seoul rejected that characterization, believing it was probably an unmodified ballistic missile.  The South Koreans did concur that the second launch on 11 January was a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, however.

That has led some observers to consider the possibility that the boost-glide maneuver, which allows the missile to extend its range with a boosted maneuver by the reentry vehicle, even when its trajectory is much lower than that of an extra-atmospheric ICBM, affected U.S. missile defense calculations about how far the missiles might travel.  The theory about the FAA ground stop is that air space was being “frozen” to minimize potential interference with a missile defense interceptor launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  (Fort Greely in Fairbanks would be the other launch site for ground-based interceptors.)

It seems improbable that NORAD could have thought either North Korean missile might reach the United States (even Hawaii or some part of Alaska).  The maximum altitude attained by the missile launched on 11 January was 37 miles, according to South Korea, and NORAD would have had a good idea early on that that’s all it was going to do.  (An ICBM, by contrast, will typically attain an altitude of at least several hundred miles, depending on how far over the earth’s surface it is to travel, and may reach as high as 1,200 miles even on long trajectories.  North Korea famously sent an ICBM up to 2,800 miles above the earth with a short-range test in 2017.)

Graphic credit Radio Free Asia
Graphic credit Radio Free Asia

Even with boosted glide, I don’t think NORAD would have imagined the missile was going to get all the way to Hawaii, much less the continental United States.  (The 5 January missile reached an altitude of 30 miles.  Both missile launches were toward the northeast and would not have menaced Guam – but a threat to Guam from North Korea wouldn’t trigger a ground-based interceptor launch from the U.S. West coast in any case.)

A view of the missile’s course over the earth’s surface on 11 January, as it appeared on a screen watched by Kim Jong-Un.

NORAD in fact confirmed to the War Zone that it did not expect the 11 January missile to threaten U.S. territory, and that it did not request the ground stop on the West coast the afternoon of 10 January.  The implication seems to be that the FAA made its own call on that matter.

No further explanation has been offered for the evacuation/shelter order at Fort Greely on the 4th.

These developments should give heads a swivel, however.  We’re entering operational territory we haven’t been in for decades, with North Korea turning to a profile of more advanced missile testing.  Whatever the full details and explanation of the reactions to the 5 and 11 January missile launches, the day is much closer now when a North Korean missile test could reasonably appear to threaten U.S. territory.  Geography and national patterns of missile testing have made that unlikely with China and Iran, but the same elements of the problem make it inevitable with North Korea.

And we have no missile testing agreement with Pyongyang, like the one with Moscow by which we provide advance notification of missile tests that could trigger defensive reactions from the other party (e.g., launches from the Arctic, launches to “broad ocean area” splashdowns.  The earliest version of the agreement, the “Accidents Measures” Agreement, dates to 1971.  The current agreement has been in effect since 1988).  Obvious parties in the same boat, vis-à-vis North Korean testing, include South Korea and Japan.

It should also trouble us why someone in the U.S. federal government seemed to think it prudent to react to the North Korean launches of the last two weeks.  I suggest Congress seek answers on that.

Kim Jong-Un observes the missile launch on 11 Jan 2022. KCNA image
Kim Jong-Un observes the missile launch on 11 Jan 2022. KCNA image

Big flick

These things are not uncharted territory, but they are un-updated territory going back several decades.  They come at a bad time in other respects, with Russia renewing threats to deploy forces to Cuba and Venezuela in response to any U.S. punitive actions over Ukraine.

It’s not 2014 anymore, and our expectations about how limited Russia would keep such deployments are way out of date if we think in that mode.  Russia, as the former Soviet Union, had a robust set of multi-service forces stationed in Cuba for 30 years from the early 1960s to the USSR break-up in 1991-92.  That, updated to 2022, and not the pattern of the last two decades – an occasional visit by a pair of bombers or an intelligence collection ship – is what we need to be envisioning.

Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov (RFS-454) arrives in Havana in 2019. AFP video, YouTube
Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov (RFS-454) arrives in Havana in 2019. AFP video, YouTube

Besides intelligence collection, we could expect Moscow to put S-400 air defense batteries in Cuba – quite possibly Venezuela as well (where Maduro has already bought some of his own) – and even at some point Iskander SRBMs.  Combatant ship deployments, attack submarines, and a largely permanent detachment of fighters and reconnaissance planes in Cuba are likely. 

In Venezuela, intermediate-range missiles are possible: missiles that would threaten not just parts of the U.S. but most of Central and South America.  (Intermediate-range cruise missiles are a possibility in Cuba as well, although I don’t think Moscow would go so far as to put IRBMs – that is, reduced-range ICBMs – in Cuba.)

It’s also conceivable that Venezuela could be used to host forces like theater bombers (i.e., Tu-22M Backfires), refueling aircraft, and air- and sea-launched missiles.  Supporting the Backfires with fighters from Cuba for a mission to the north would be an obvious operational profile.  A scenario in which Russia is logistically prepared to penetrate U.S. defenses from the south, and attack high-value targets or hold them at risk, probably has a plan on the shelf already.

One supporting objective of such a deployment profile would be to intimidate America’s neighbors in the Caribbean and Central America.  Conditioning them to a high-profile Russian presence would also have the effect of making them more inclined to accept the idea of having common interests with Moscow in their own neighborhood.

As ever, Ξ

Speaking of which, Cuba agreed in December 2021 to participate in China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Certainly it matters that the CCP will labor to sway Cuban hearts and minds with that move.  (I actually think Cuba will escape the worst of the debt-extortion scheme that comes with Belt-and-Road, because all of America’s enemies are willing to net-fund Cuba as the price of access to Cuba’s spectacularly-situated territory.  Communist Cuba knows very well how to get paid rent for being 90 miles off our coast; it’s what Havana did with its Soviet patrons for those 30 years of the Cold War mentioned earlier.)

But it’s not hearts and minds we should concentrate our vigilance on.  It’s warehouses and container ships.  Belt-and-Road is the premier cover for moving a cache of military and defense-related building materials into Cuba, and we can be confident Beijing will use it to the hilt.  It’s also an excuse to keep Chinese “managers” and “workers” swarming the island in perpetuity, and we can assume a healthy proportion of them will be intelligence and paramilitary personnel.

We’ve reached the point where there can be no credible objection to the proposition that Russian and Chinese moves on the U.S. perimeter are strategic and military in nature.  We’ve also reached the point where the Asian giants’ strategic-triad assets are equal enough to ours – or more – that deterring them from moving in next door, bringing conventional armaments under the lightest of cover or excuse, would not be an easy matter.  The means to defy Joe Biden don’t have to be very robust, and the will is there in spades.  The game is changing before our eyes.

Feature image: North Korean agency image of missile launch released on 12 January 2022.  KCNA via Stars and Stripes.

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