N. Korea raises urgency for reliable missile defense
North Korea’s ballistic missile test is shining an intense spotlight on the Pentagon’s missile defenses, systems installed to protect South Korea and now the U.S. mainland. Recent results have been promising, but U.S. officials acknowledge that Pyongyang’s stunning advances this month are providing a real-world test much sooner than they had expected.
The Pentagon has been touting the viability of the country’s ballistic missile systems following the apparent successful test by the regime of Kim Jong-un of a long-range missile on July 4, saying the constellation of missile interceptors and weapons now in place are fully capable of blocking any threat to American shores from Pyongyang or elsewhere.
The need for reliability of the missile defense systems, including the new Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery installed in South Korea, soared amid calculations that the North has tested what could be its first intercontinental ballistic missile.
In what Pentagon officials insisted was a previously planned exercise, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency revealed that a THAAD system based in Alaska successfully tracked and shot down a simulated intermediate-range ballistic missile that closely resembles the ones Pyongyang is developing. The test was the first of its kind for the system against an incoming intermediate-range missile, which analysts say is harder to hit than shorter-range missiles.
“This test further demonstrates the capabilities of the THAAD weapon system and its ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missile threats,” Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said in a statement.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican whose state suddenly finds itself potentially in range of Pyongyang’s deadliest weapons, praised the test. He said it “provided further confirmation that we have the capability to defend our bases, our troops and our allies in places like Japan, South Korea and Guam against rogue nations like North Korea.”
But any test falls far short of real-world conditions, when the enemy doesn’t reveal in advance where and when the missile will be launched or its intended target.
“Missile defense, even if it worked perfectly, is not a get-outof-jail-free card,” Laura Grego, a senior scientist for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Bloomberg news service. Missile defense systems, critics note, can’t afford to have a single failure against powerful payloads likely to be loaded onto an ICBM.
“The homeland missile defense system doesn’t work perfectly and hasn’t demonstrated a real-world capability,” Ms. Grego said.
Even before the July 4 test, the Pentagon was poised to invest billions of dollars to boost its anti-missile technology as part of President Trump’s first defense budget. Aside from additional funding, Defense Department officials are spearheading an overhaul of missile defense strategies and tactics.
In one of his first acts as Pentagon chief, Defense Secretary James Mattis initiated a departmentwide review of missile defense operations in May. The review, led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul J. Selva, will “identify ways to strengthen missile defense capabilities, rebalance homeland and theater defense priorities, and provide the necessary policy and strategy framework for the nation’s missile defense systems,” Pentagon press secretary Dana White said.
The administration’s newfound focus on the network of land- and sea-based interceptor weapons and associated sensors comes on the heels of the first successful test of the Pentagon’s premier missile interceptor system in May.
The game-changer in the debate was the successful July 4 test of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, which flew higher and farther than any previous North Korean longrange missile shots, theoretically placing the entire state of Alaska within range of Pyongyang’s new class of ballistic missiles.
Pentagon officials went on a rhetorical offensive touting the U.S. missile defense capabilities shortly after the North Korean test. The move was a clear effort to reassure American allies in the Pacific, rattled by the significant capabilities demonstrated by the North Korean regime, and to clearly warn Pyongyang against any further aggressive actions.
“We do have confidence in our ability to defend against the limited threat, the nascent threat that is there,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff. Davis told reporters Wednesday just days after the landmark North Korean test. The range demonstrated by the nuclear-capable Hwasong-14 test shot would put targets inside Alaska within range of Pyongyang’s missiles.
Mr. Mattis told reporters that the network of radars, satellites, sensors and missile interceptors performed flawlessly during the July 4 North Korea test. “We were on duty. As you all know, the radars were up and operating. We knew it as soon as [Kim Jong-un] fired it that it had been fired. Literally.”
Ship-based missile interceptors based in the Pacific did not attempt to knock the North Korean missile out of the sky because the launch was only a test and did not target any U.S. assets or allies in the region.
Mr. Mattis and his Japanese counterpart, Tomomi Inada, agreed that the test “represents an escalation and unacceptable provocation that undermines regional security and stability,” a Defense Department readout of their July 5 conversation said.
Much uncertainty still surrounds the missile launched by the North, despite the fears in Washington and Seoul and the conspicuous celebrating by Mr. Kim and his aides. John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and analyst for the North Korea news and analysis blog 38 North, said a few things have become clearer in the past 10 days.
“The emerging reality is that the North has an unreliable missile that can reach Alaska or Hawaii with a single nuclear warhead and would be lucky to hit even a city-sized target,” Mr. Schilling wrote of the first wave of analyses evaluating the Hwasong-14’s capabilities. “However, with a year or two of additional testing and development, it will likely become a missile that can reliably deliver a single nuclear warhead to targets along the U.S. West Coast, possibly with enough accuracy to destroy soft military targets like naval bases.”
Given another five years, he said, the North may be able to add decoys and other measures to try to thwart anti-missile systems.
“Let’s hope U.S. missile defenses are up to that challenge,” Mr. Schilling said.
The Trump White House has coupled its tough rhetoric with billions of dollars in additional spending to enhance the U.S. missile defense shield. Officials from the Missile Defense Agency called for budget increases for three of the main pillars of the missile shield: the THAAD missile defense system, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense weapon and the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. All told, the Pentagon plans to invest $7.9 billion on missile defense, agency officials say.
The Pentagon is looking to devote $1.5 billion of those funds on the most ambitious of the missile defense programs, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense weapon. There are 36 of those systems in place in and around the continental United States. The White House wants to add at least eight more.
The weapon, which is designed to strike an incoming ballistic missile in midair — a mission typically described as “trying to hit a bullet with a bullet” — cleared a major developmental hurdle in May with its first successful intercept of a live missile. The midcourse defense test, in which an interceptor missile fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California took out a ballistic missile target fired from the Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands, took place less than 24 hours after Pyongyang carried out its midrange missile test shot.
At the time, the Defense Department insisted that the longplanned missile drill was not a direct response North Korea’s provocative tests, but rather to ensure the system was up to the task. Aside from the midcourse defense weapon, Pentagon officials are seeking funding increases for the THAAD system.
The THAAD system, which is designed primarily to take out short- to mid-range ballistic missiles, has angered Pyongyang and its allies in Beijing after Washington ordered its deployment into South Korea. Pentagon argues that the anti-ballistic missile system is critical to defending the peninsula, as well as the Japanese coast, from North Korea’s expanding long-range missile capability.
Beijing, however, has long opposed the weapon’s deployment so close to China’s borders. Chinese leaders claim the missiles could be used to monitor and take out its own ballistic missile sites, along with targets inside North Korea. But the missile deployment also has roiled political tensions inside Seoul, with new South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowing to re-tailor or adjust its deployment of the weapon system on the peninsula.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency said that a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system successfully tracked and shot down a simulated intermediate-range missile like the one North Korea is building.