De­bate over mis­sile ac­tion

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Eric Tal­madge THE PROS THE CONS

The As­so­ci­ated Press With North Korea threat­en­ing to send a salvo of bal­lis­tic mis­siles close to Guam, a U.S. mil­i­tary hub in the Pa­cific, pres­sure could grow for Washington to put its multi­bil­lion-dol­lar mis­sile de­fense sys­tem into use and shoot them out of the air.

If U.S. ter­ri­tory is threat­ened, coun­ter­mea­sures are a no-brainer. But if the mis­siles aren’t ex­pected to hit the is­land — the stated goal is to have them hit wa­ters well off­shore — should it? Could it?

It’s not an easy call. North Korea claims it is in the fi­nal stages of pre­par­ing a plan to launch four in­ter­me­di­ate-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles over Ja­pan and into wa­ters off the tiny is­land of Guam, where about 7,000 U.S. troops are based and 160,000 U.S. civil­ians live.

Un­like past mis­sile launches that landed much closer to North Korean ter­ri­tory, fir­ing a bar­rage near Guam would be ex­tremely provoca­tive, al­most com­pelling a re­sponse. Try­ing to in­ter­cept the mis­siles, how­ever, would open up a whole new range of po­ten­tial dan­gers.

Here’s the cal­cu­lus.

Each mis­sile North Korea launches brings it closer to hav­ing a re­li­able nu­clear force ca­pa­ble of striking the United States main­land, or its al­lies and mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties in Asia.

It al­ready has bal­lis­tic mis­siles that can strike Ja­pan, a key ally and host to roughly 50,000 U.S. troops. It’s very pos­si­ble the North could at­tack Ja­pan and U.S. bases there with nu­clear, chem­i­cal or bi­o­log­i­cal war­heads. But the North clearly still needs to con­duct more tests to hone its tech­ni­cal skills. In par­tic­u­lar, doubts re­main over whether it has per­fected re-en­try tech­nol­ogy for its war­heads.

Shoot­ing down the North’s mis­siles would ham­per its abil­ity to glean the flight data it needs. And if his mis­siles prove no match for U.S. in­ter­cep­tors, Kim Jong Un might be chas­tened into think­ing twice be­fore con­duct­ing any more.

In­ter­cept­ing a mis­sile over the open ocean has the added ben­e­fit of not be­ing a di­rect at­tack on North Korea it­self.

A big prob­lem is that fail­ure would not only be hu­mil­i­at­ing, but could ac­tu­ally weaken the U.S. po­si­tion more than do­ing noth­ing at all.

The U.S. has pumped bil­lions of dol­lars into its mis­sile de­fense sys­tems and sold hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth to its al­lies, in­clud­ing the very con­tro­ver­sial deployment of a state-of-the-art sys­tem known by its acro­nym, THAAD, in South Korea.

Tak­ing out Guam-bound mis­siles would re­quire suc­cess­ful in­ter­cepts by ship­based SM-3 “hit-to-kill” mis­siles over the Sea of Ja­pan or land-based PAC-3 “Pa­triot” mis­siles on Guam.

A failed in­ter­cept would likely em­bolden the North to move ahead even faster. It could also have a chilling psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact on al­lies like Ja­pan and South Korea, which might seek to build up their own nu­clear forces in­de­pen­dently of Washington.

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