Debate over missile action
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.