North Korea’s growing missile threat

North Korea’s growing missile threat

While America’s attention has been drawn to last week’s terrorist attack upon Boston, events in North Korea continue to be cause for concern. The revelation last month that North Korea has taken "initial steps" to deploy a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08, and the disclosure earlier this month that at least part of the U.S. intelligence community believes "with moderate confidence" (in intel-speak) that it possesses the ability to deploy a nuclear warhead atop the missile highlight the threat that Pyongyang poses to the United States. 

It should come as no surprise that North Korea possesses, or will soon possess, the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. After all, U.S. government commissions, U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, and defense analysts have been warning of this eventuality for more than a decade. Pyongyang has been working on nuclear warheads for two decades and has conducted three nuclear tests. Both Israel and South Africa, by contrast, developed nuclear warheads for their missiles without conducting any nuclear tests. Moreover, as Peter Pry noted last week, the United States has possessed for more than fifty years nuclear missile warheads smaller and lighter than the satellite that North Korea lofted in December. 

Skeptics will argue that North Korea has yet to demonstrate it has the ability to deploy nuclear warheads atop its ballistic missiles. Fair enough. But policy makers should not have to wait for Pyongyang to test a nuclear-armed ICBM to respond — particularly when countermeasures are likely to take years to come to fruition.

The very real threat posed by North Korea has thrown into sharp relief the Obama administration’s zig-zagging on missile defense. After coming to office, Obama’s team scrapped the Bush administration’s missile defense plan, putting in place the Phased Adaptive Approach that promised to deliver more effective missile defense based upon yet-to-be developed interceptors such as the Standard Missile 3 IIB. 

Some analysts suspected at the time that the Obama administration was engaging in a game of bait-and-switch, junking a missile defense system based upon proven technologies in favor of a supposedly better one down the line that it would then fail to fund. It thus came as something less than a surprise when, in a move largely missed by the major news outlets, last month Secretary of Defense Hagel announced the cancellation of the final phase of the missile defense plan while promising to beef up the Bush-era missile defense site at Fort Greely, Alaska. These interceptors will not be deployed until 2017, however. 

Enhancing U.S. missile defenses in response to North Korea’s nuclear missile program would appear to be warranted, but it alone is likely to prove insufficient.  The United States should consider enhancing its ability to strike North Korea, including its leadership and its ballistic missile launch infrastructure. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter wrote on June 22, 2006:

"Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not."

Perry and Carter went on to argue in favor of a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean test missile on the launch pad. It would be worth asking Carter whether he continues to hold this view.

Finally, the United States should explore ways to enhance its extended nuclear deterrent of its allies, particularly South Korea and Japan. The Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review scrapped the nuclear variant of the Tomahawk missile, which Tokyo looked to as the embodiment of the U.S. nuclear guarantee, and yet is years away from fielding the variant of the F-35 strike aircraft that will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Reassuring U.S. allies in the face of North Korean nuclear threats is likely to be both vital to stability in the region and an increasingly challenging task.