North Korean stress

U.S. mis­sile de­fense sys­tem has never been tested in com­bat

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Burns

WASH­ING­TON» North Korea’s newly demon­strated mis­sile mus­cle puts Alaska within range of po­ten­tial at­tack and stresses the Pen­tagon’s mis­sile de­fenses like never be­fore. Even more wor­ri­some, it may be only a mat­ter of time be­fore North Korea mates a longer­range ICBM with a nu­clear war­head, putting all of the United States at risk.

The Pen­tagon has spent tens of bil­lions to de­velop what it calls a lim­ited de­fense against mis­siles ca­pa­ble of reach­ing U.S. soil. The sys­tem has never faced com­bat or been fully tested. The sys­tem suc­ceeded May 30 in its first at­tempted in­ter­cept of a mock ICBM, but it hasn’t faced more re­al­is­tic con­di­tions.

Al­though Rus­sia and China long have been ca­pa­ble of tar­get­ing the U.S. with a nu­clear weapon, North Korea is seen as the big­ger, more trou­bling threat. Its opaque, un­pre­dictable govern­ment of­ten con­founds U.S. in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ments. And North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has threat­ened to strike the U.S., while show­ing no in­ter­est in nu­clear or mis­sile ne­go­ti­a­tions.

“We should be wor­ried,” said Philip E. Coyle III, a for­mer head of the Pen­tagon’s test and eval­u­a­tion of­fice. North Korea’s lat­est suc­cess, he said, “shows that time is not on our side.”

U.S. of­fi­cials be­lieve North Korea is still short of be­ing able to minia­tur­ize a nu­clear war­head to

fit atop an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal mis­sile. And it’s un­clear whether it has de­vel­oped the tech­nol­ogy and ex­per­tise to shield such a war­head suf­fi­ciently from the ex­treme heat ex­pe­ri­enced when it reen­ters Earth’s at­mos­phere en route to a tar­get.

A Pen­tagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said Wed­nes­day, “We’ve still not seen a num­ber of things that would in­di­cate a fullup threat,” in­clud­ing a demon­strated abil­ity to mate a nu­clear war­head to an ICBM. “But clearly they are work­ing on it. Clearly they seek to do it. This is an ag­gres­sive re­search and de­vel­op­ment pro­gram on their part.”

Davis said the U.S. de­fen- sive sys­tem is lim­ited but ef­fec­tive.

“We do have con­fi­dence in it,” he said. “That’s why we’ve de­vel­oped it.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, like its re­cent pre­de­ces­sors, has put its money on find­ing a diplo­matic path to halt­ing and re­vers­ing North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram. While the Pen­tagon has highly de­vel­oped plans if mil­i­tary force is or­dered, the ap­proach is seen as un­ten­able be­cause it would put mil­lions of South Korean civil­ians at risk.

But diplo­macy has failed so far.

The Pen­tagon has a to­tal of 36 mis­sile in­ter­cep­tors in un­der­ground si­los on mil­i­tary bases in Alaska and Cal­i­for­nia, due to in­crease to 44 by year’s end. These in­ter­cep­tors can be launched upon no­tice of a mis­sile headed to­ward the United States. An in­ter­cep­tor soars to­ward its tar­get based on track­ing data from radars and other elec­tronic sen­sors and is sup­posed to de­stroy the tar­get by sheer force of im­pact out­side the Earth’s at­mos­phere. Some­times likened to hit­ting a bul­let with a bul­let, the col­li­sion is meant to in­cin­er­ate the tar­geted war­head, neu­tral­iz­ing its nu­clear ex­plo­sive power.

The Pen­tagon is not sat­is­fied that the de­fen­sive sys­tem is ad­e­quate for North Korea’s ac­cel­er­at­ing mis­sile ad­vances.

“The pace of the threat is ad­vanc­ing faster than I think was con­sid­ered when we did the first bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­fense re­view back in 2010,” Rob Soofer, who is help­ing re­view mis­sile de­fenses, told a Se­nate Armed Ser­vice sub­com­mit­tee last month.

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