Strengthen US Ballistic Missile Defense to Deter North Korea

After a series of missile tests over the past couple of months, it is clear that, left to its own devices, North Korea will continue to test its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) over the same trajectory and at greater distances into the Pacific. Frequent tests have proven that Pyongyang, despite international condemnation and an enhanced sanctions regime, is not reluctant to produce more missiles.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you already know that in July, North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), conducted two ICBM tests with missiles that are capable of reaching the United States. Following these tests, on August 29, North Korea launched a nuclear-capable Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile over Japan that could have hit US targets in East Asia and the Pacific, including Guam. This missile did not survive and is not yet operational. However, during another test on September 15, the missile launched from Pyongyang’s international airport flew higher and further than the previous one, escalating tensions.

Neither Japan nor the United States attempted to intercept these missiles since they did not pose an immediate threat, and in order to collect data. However, US President Donald J. Trump, in his first speech to the United Nations (UN) on September 19, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies. This speech is likely to give Pyongyang more incentive to improve its missiles through more testing, which could include an atmospheric nuclear test in the Pacific.

In addition to the series of ICBM tests, on September 3, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, stating that it was its first test of a “hydrogen bomb” or a two-stage, thermonuclear device. While there is still disagreement on the yield, the detonation was far more powerful than the US bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. North Korea may have also miniaturized a nuclear warhead, which has not been tested on a missile. 

North Korea has not made rapid progress on its longer-range missiles, which makes the successful launch of a nuclear-armed ICBM with a re-entry vehicle less likely in the near future. The unknowns with North Korean missiles are survival and accuracy, that they would not disintegrate, would have a re-entry vehicle that would carry a nuclear warhead through the upper atmosphere, and would have precise targeting capability. Yet, it is crucial to remember that their capabilities have improved significantly even under heavy sanctions.

North Korean scientists are under pressure from their leader, Kim Jong-un, to do better each time. This relatively rapid progress over the last year has emboldened Pyongyang to directly threaten the US homeland. For the United States and its allies in the region, failing to respond to an escalating North Korean threat or threatening North Korea with total annihilation are too risky. Following the recent rhetoric, doing nothing is no longer a viable option for any stakeholders in this issue. In addition to the propaganda promoted by Kim’s regime, having full-range flight tests of its new IRBMs and ICBMs without lofted trajectories would benefit North Korea by giving it the technical information to operate the missiles and improve their performance.

In terms of US and allied ballistic missile defense against North Korea, a great deal of attention has been paid to US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) equipment for the anti-missile THAAD system in Seongju, South Korea. However, one should observe that, in May, the US ground-based midcourse anti-ballistic defense system (GMD) successfully intercepted a mock ICBM launched from the Reagan Test Site in Marshall Islands with an exoatmospheric kill vehicle launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

These two systems together are an integral part of the US and allied deterrence against North Korea: a regional joint missile defense architecture and an improved, layered US national missile defense system.

US Missile Defense as Part of the Response

North Korean missiles’ new potential to reach the US homeland has led to concerns that the US nuclear umbrella now has “holes” in it. There is a dire need for the United States to strengthen its deterrence and defense posture against North Korea in a clearly articulated regional policy. This policy should state the collective security recommitment among the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

The first step should be issuing a US declaratory policy that it will shoot down North Korean missiles directed toward the United States, its territories, and its allies. This declaration would be justified under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, which North Korea has repeatedly violated by conducting ballistic missile tests. In order to be successful and reliable, ballistic missile defense should be layered and integrated, both in the tactical and strategic systems.

In the theater, the role of ballistic missile defense in extended deterrence is usually understated. However, extended deterrence is beyond nuclear weapons. In addition, neither “mini” nor tactical nuclear weapons provide a military utility in this conflict. Ballistic missile defense also has an element of burden sharing as seen in the US-Japan co-development of the Aegis platform.

On the US side, the improvement of homeland missile defense systems, i.e. the GMD, is needed to raise the threshold for attack and change the calculus of the adversaries by creating uncertainty. The Obama administration’s Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) in 2010 focused on the limited threats to the homeland and regional threats to allies; as seen in the emphasis on the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). However, the US threat calculus is changing and the BMDR that is currently underway is likely to reflect that change. In order to pose a credible deterrent in the homeland architecture, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) needs additional funding to augment the discrimination capability and capacity of existing systems through additional sensors.

The George W. Bush administration made the US strategic missile defense architecture operational in December 2004 as a starting point for improved and expanded capabilities. The current GMD system is composed of forty-four interceptors in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, as well as a sea-based X-band radar floating platform named Cobra Dane near Alaska. GMD also has various fire control nodes and communication terminals in Colorado, Alaska, and California, as well as external interfaces that connect to radars and early warning satellites around the globe.

The new capability enhancement (CE-II) Block 1 and the redesigned multi-object kill vehicle (MOKV) are scheduled to enter service in 2025. Given the enhanced North Korean threat, there is a need to implement process and design improvements, as well as testing against realistic counter-measures to continue to improve GMD’s testing record. Better accuracy in terms of targeting, real-time tracking and positioning, and reliability will allow for a more successful discrimination capability in the mid-course picture. More space sensors are needed to improve the strategic communications in C2BMC (command, control, battle management and communication system) for survivability.          

Improving the reliability of US homeland missile defense systems, along with robust regional architecture, would change Kim’s calculus. In order to achieve an operationally demonstrable capability, the current system needs more funding and testing.  

Nilsu Goren is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.


Related Experts: Nilsu Goren

Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un guided the winter river-crossing attack tactical drill of the reinforced tank and armored infantry regiment in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on January 28. (KCNA via Reuters)