Missile Defense in the Era of Kim Jong Un

“Our hydrogen bomb is much bigger than the one developed by the Soviet Union,” reported the state-run DPRK Today on Sunday. “If this H-bomb were to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile and fall on Manhattan in New York City, all the people there would be killed immediately and the city would burn down to ashes.”

North Korea’s threat followed its release on Wednesday of pictures showing Kim Jong Un standing next to what was reported to be a nuclear warhead. Although the object—a shiny sphere that has been compared to a 1970s disco ball—was most likely a mock-up of a weapon in development, it is probably just a matter of years before his technicians build a real one.

Kim is surely loath to launch nukes, but it would be unwise not to be concerned by his incendiary threats, especially because they come at the same time as intense infighting, highlighted by the execution and disappearance of flag officers. Once again, something is amiss in Pyongyang, and in times of turmoil dictators like Kim have incentives to act rashly.

All of which brings us to the subject of deterrence. If it fails, as it might, no country has a good Plan B.

On Thursday, Admiral William Gortney, commander of the US Northern Command and NORAD chief, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korean missiles can “range the continental United States and Canada.”

There are two missiles Pyongyang can use to put a hole in North America. There’s the Taepodong-2, the military version of the Unha-3 that was tested on February 7, and the shorter-range but far more fearsome KN-08.

The Taepodong takes time to assemble and fuel, and the American military can destroy this launcher on the pad with nothing more sophisticated than an airstrike.

The KN-08, however, is carried on a Chinese-built mobile launcher. It can hide and shoot, so NORAD will, in all probability, know that it has been launched only when sensors pick it up in flight. Therefore, America needs a missile defense system.

At the moment, the US is putting 40 missile interceptors in Fort Greely in Alaska and four more at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The task should be completed, Gortney said, by the end of 2017.

Gortney also said his missile defense system can handle any North Korean or Iranian attack, but even defenders of missile defense recognize one shortcoming of the concept. “One interceptor versus one warhead in mid-course is a failing proposition because they can produce more than we can ever possibly afford to put into the ground,” the admiral testified Thursday.

Gortney in his oral testimony referred to “very promising” work on lasers and a “multiple-object kill vehicle,” but military analysts know in the end offense almost always beats defense. America, however, has little choice but to keep working on expensive missile defenses because even one fewer warhead getting through is a victory of sorts.

Until US planners can be sure they can rely on deterrence—and with regard to North Korea that may be never—they will need to be able to destroy missiles arching toward America or its friends and allies.

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