U.S. beefs up missile defense amid North Korean threats

Defense | Critics fear system won't be able to protect the homeland from potential attacks
by Michael Cochrane
Posted 4/01/16, 04:31 pm

The North Korean government has a history of threats, bluster, and saber rattling toward the United States. But the North’s recent advances in long-range missile technology and miniaturization of nuclear warheads, combined with its threat in late February to deal “fatal blows at the U.S. mainland any moment” with a potentially nuclear-armed missile, suggest more than empty threats.

Now, the totalitarian regime’s military moves are raising questions about the effectiveness of U.S. ballistic missile defenses.

Just this year, North Korea claimed a successful hydrogen bomb test, put a satellite into orbit, and claimed a successful simulated warhead re-entry test. In late March, the country’s leaders claimed to have successfully tested a solid-fuel rocket engine—a key technological advance because solid fuel reduces launch preparation times.

But the Pentagon is particularly worried about a mobile, long-range missile under development in North Korea. With a range of more than 3,400 miles, the so-called KN-08 is in the category of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Senior Pentagon officials also fear the North Koreans may have figured out a way to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop the KN-08 missile.

“While the KN-08 remains untested, modeling suggests it could deliver a nuclear (weapon) to much of the continental United States,” Adm. Bill Gortney, head of U.S. Northern Command, told a Senate panel March 10.

America’s Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) consists of an interconnected set of ground- and ship-based sensors and missiles designed to track and intercept missile threats.

The component of the BMDS protecting the U.S. homeland is the fleet of 30 ground-based interceptors based at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. These silo-launched, counter-ICBM missiles are designed to fly into the path of an enemy missile as it flies through space at the peak of its ballistic trajectory, striking it with a high-velocity kill vehicle and destroying it before it ever reaches U.S. territory.

But the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, criticized the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, saying in February the Pentagon “has not demonstrated through flight testing that it can defend the U.S. homeland against the current missile threat.” The agency made its determination after the GMD system failed three of its last four intercept tests. The only successful test was the most recent, in June 2014.

But other defense analysts believe the planned increase in the GMD fleet to 44 interceptors, as well as the $3.3 billion the Pentagon plans to spend on the GMD system over the next five years, will significantly improve its effectiveness.

“The GMD system is in the process of being upgraded,” said Michaela Dodge, missile defense and nuclear forces policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “The kill vehicle is undergoing an improvement to increase the reliability of the system. The bottom line is the system isn’t set in stone. It’s developing and it’s improving.”

Another possible GMD vulnerability a potential foe such as North Korea might exploit involves “countermeasures,” decoy warheads designed to fool a U.S. interceptor into hitting the wrong target. In 2009, the Obama administration cancelled a program designed to counter such a threat. The multiple-kill vehicle program would have allowed a single interceptor to carry several projectiles to destroy both warhead and decoy.

But now the program is being revived. With funding approved in last year’s defense budget, the Army’s Missile Defense Agency plans to deploy Multiple Object Kill Vehicle capabilities by 2020, according to Defense-Update.com.

“I’m a supporter of the program because it makes sense,” Dodge told me. “It made sense in 2009, it makes sense today. Maybe even more so since it’s not like the ballistic missile threat stopped developing in 2009, as we are seeing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Cochrane

Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent. 

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