MELBOURNE, Australia — North Korea remains “a critical threat to the United States and our allies in Northeast Asia,” while China continues on a sweeping military modernization plan that “includes the development of capabilities to conduct long-range attacks against adversary forces that might deploy or operate in the western Pacific Ocean,” according to the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on threats to the national security of the United States.

North Korea

On North Korea, Ashley called the isolationist country the United States’ “hardest intelligence collection target.” Unsurprisingly, he also touched on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles to deliver them against the United States. He specifically noted that in 2016 and 2017, North Korea launched more than 40 short-, medium-, intermediate- intercontinental-range, and submarine-launched missiles, adding that although “flight tests on longer-range missiles in 2016 were marked by multiple failures and setbacks, 2017 saw Pyongyang making advancements.”

July saw tests of two Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching North America and a late November launch of the new Hwasong-15 ICBM. North Korea has also twice flight-tested a solid-propellant, medium-range missile capable of reaching Japan, which Ashley described as “significant because solid-propellant missiles can be prepared for launch more rapidly than liquid-propellant systems.”

This July 28, 2017, photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the launch of a Hwasong-14 ICBM at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
This July 28, 2017, photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the launch of a Hwasong-14 ICBM at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

At the same time, the North is continuing its nuclear weapons program, with Ashley noting that its sixth nuclear test, which occurred in September 2017, “generated a much larger seismic signature than had previous events.” North Korea had claimed this was a test of a hydrogen bomb for use on an ICBM. Pyongyang has showcased two different nuclear warhead designs, claiming both as missile-deliverable.

The DIA chief concluded his testimony on North Korea by warning that Kim “shows no interest in voluntarily walking away from his nuclear or missile programs, which he has made central to his security strategy.” However, South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong recently said the North is open to “frank” talks with the United States on denuclearization and would suspend missile and nuclear tests in exchange for security guarantees.

China

Ashley also touched on China and the continuing implementation of sweeping organizational reforms of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, which he said seeks to enhance its ability to conduct joint operations and improve its ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distances from the Chinese mainland.

This includes the transforming ground and air combat units at corps level and below with foundational improvements, including the integration of modern command-and-control capabilities and the ability of the units to conduct more effective joint operations. The PLA also is strengthening its joint operational command system and developing its new Strategic Support Force, which consolidates cyber, electronic warfare and space capabilities.

He said Chinese military forces continue to develop capabilities to dissuade, deter or defeat potential third-party intervention during a large-scale theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency. These capabilities ― spanning the air, maritime, space, electromagnetic and information domains ― will be used to conduct long-range attacks against adversary forces that might deploy or operate in the western Pacific Ocean, he asserted, and are most robust within the first island chain. He added that China is rapidly extending capabilities farther into the Pacific Ocean.

Satellite images of Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, show the country has placed a surface-to-air missile system on the island, according to a U.S. official. (ImageSat International N.V. via AP)
Satellite images of Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, show the country has placed a surface-to-air missile system on the island, according to a U.S. official. (ImageSat International N.V. via AP)

According to Ashley, these include “two new air-launched ballistic missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload.” He did not elaborate on this claim, although China is known to be developing a supersonic standoff land-attack missile with a high ballistic trajectory for export, while the other missile is likely to be a large long-range air-to-air missile utilizing midcourse guidance for targeting adversary high-value air assets such as tankers or airborne early warning aircraft.

China’s military modernization also encompasses its nuclear deterrent capability, focusing on the Chinese nuclear force’s mobility, survivability and effectiveness intended to ensure the viability of its strategic deterrent. This includes the development of a range of technologies, which Ashley listed as “multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, maneuvering warheads, decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding and hypersonic glide vehicles, in an attempt to counter ballistic missile defense systems.“

With the recent introduction of a viable sea-based nuclear deterrent in its Jin-class ballistic missile submarine and JL-2 missiles, the development of a strategic bomber by China ― which Ashley expects to have a nuclear mission ― would complete China’s first credible nuclear triad when combined with the country’s Rocket Force and naval capabilities.