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Could Israel’s Iron Dome Protect South Korea?


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.

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2 Responses to “Could Israel’s Iron Dome Protect South Korea?”

  1. Joey says:

    More likely that they would wait until Skyguard has been fully developed, which is a lot cheaper ($1000 per shot) and effective against the kind of armaments the DPRK possesses. But wasn’t South Korea already interested in Iron Dome back in 2011?

  2. This is a great way to move the debate forward and consider different aspects from proliferation to strategic depth.

    This response expands on the common ground of Iron Dome being useful in South Korea to a certain extent. I think Iron Dome or something like it is very helpful to South Korea, but with consequences we can’t fully foresee right now.

    Here’s the likely bottom line – as soon as DPRK fires a ballistic missile into Seoul or South Korea, North Korea has begun the process of having their regime systematically dismantled. A North Korean ballistic missile attack is a-strategic (there’s no strategy other than terror). And if the missile has a chemical or biological warhead – set up a war crimes tribunal, because there will likely be some North Koreans with one way tickets to The Hague. It could happen, but if the regime wants nothing more than to stay in power, a missile is a phenomenally risky gamble with odds even worse than Russian roulette. DPRK may be wily, but they’ve rarely been crazy.

    And even if North Korea were to launch every one of their 1,000 or so missiles, then they have no more leverage to threaten anyone else with their missiles. More later in the response.

    Given that FAJR3 240 MM has the same range (~45KM), caliber (240MM) and payload weight (45KG) as some DPRK systems and there are likely 200 systems that can range the northern exurbs of Seoul-Incheon conurbation and that they can fire about 3,400 rounds in an opening salvo here are some rough order of magnitude calculations what Iron Dome could do.
    Many more details here – especially around pages 33-36.
    http://nautilus.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Cavazos—-3rd-VERSION-11-Nov-Nautilus-Confernce-KJNWFZ-Oct26-2011.pdf

    If we assume there are roughly 100 each of the M1985 (24 rockets) and M1991 (12 rockets) variants, that means a total of 3,400 rounds possible in an opening salvo and then a 15 minute pause to re-load.
    North Korea only has to fire one salvo to send folks in the heart of Seoul scrambling into any one of the shelters available. Seoul subway alone has space for

    Assuming the pK (probability of kill) is at the lower end of .8. It’s pretty straightforward calculation that 4,250 Iron Dome rockets would buy Seoul about 15 minutes’ warning time and may save about 2,000 lives in the event of an artillery barrage. As soon as rounds fly, people in Seoul-Incheon will start to fill the shelters with capacity of 20 million people.

    Given 60 missiles per battery, that means South Korea would need about 75 (70.8) batteries. This aint cheap. Each battery is about $50 million and each missile around $100,000. The combined cost of roughly $4.2 billion (3.75 billion for batteries and .425 billion for missiles) would eat up about 14% of Korea’s ENTIRE defense budget. But this isn’t all or nothing; there’s likely some happy medium which is up to the Koreans to decide.

    Now about the missiles… North Korea probably has around 1,000 missiles that can range Seoul or further. Let’s assume the pK against a ballistic missile drops to around .5 from .8 since we don’t know the real answer – and neither does North Korea, then 2,000 Iron Dome missiles would make North Korea’s missile program irrelevant for threatening South Korea. However, there are likely unknown changes to the status quo and state of deterrence on the peninsula.

    Will a mostly irrelevant missile program lead North Korea to pour more money into new and more missiles, or will North Korea pour more money into their economy to peacefully assimilate at some future date or will North Korea pour more money into Unconventional Warfare such as Special Forces or cyber?

    As an aside, I’m a little surprised that the FAJR systems are not being systematically destroyed by the Israeli air force. Given the limited space to surveil, Israel could likely destroy each of the pieces almost immediately after thany FAJR fires. Sounds like a political consideration rather than a military issue.

    @NTI @CNA has some very good material also at
    http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/north-korea/delivery-systems/

    You’re right to point out that Iron Dome is not THE answer to South Korea’s problems, but capabilities like Iron Dome by any other name can help save a large number of lives directly and by indirectly by providing warning time.

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