Shadow Government

Our Missile Defenses Go to 11

But that’s not nearly enough to safeguard us from North Korea’s nukes.

The band Spinal Tap in 1984. (Pete Cronin/Redferns)
The band Spinal Tap in 1984. (Pete Cronin/Redferns)

I usually write longer, detailed essays for this column but today’s submission is simpler. And it has a simple message. Missile defense will not protect the United States from North Korean missiles. I know a lot of people think the opposite is true. Even President Donald Trump has asserted we have a 97 percent chance of shooting down a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). But, as they say, “um, no.”

It would make sense for you to scratch your head and ask how can we have spent tens of billions of dollars over 30 years and still not be able to shoot down a couple of North Korea missiles. But, sorry, we can’t.

This is true for a whole host of reasons, but let’s get right to the chase. Our missile defenses don’t work all that well (better than they used to, but far from reliable and very far from perfect) and we don’t have very many of them. It is like the old joke about the married couple. The wife complains “the food at this restaurant is terrible!” To which her husband responds: “Yeah, and the portions are small, too.”

Current U.S. military planning would shoot four ground-based interceptors (GBIs) in Alaska or California at each incoming North Korean ICBM. Do the math. We shoot four at each incoming missile because each interceptor has about a 25 percent chance of working: i.e. hitting its target. And that assumes everything goes right. So far, however, little goes right for our GBIs and none have ever taken down an ICBM in a realistic, real-time, no-notice test. In fact, the reason the United States purchased so few GBIs in the Obama years is because the ones we had already purchased did not work all that well. Time and money were needed to fix major systemic problems. They’re better now, but still far from perfect.

Now, if you are one of those glass-half-full types, firing four GBIs gives you a really high chance of shooting down one missile. If, however, you like a little realism in your plan to prevent nuclear Armageddon, then let’s say the chances of knocking one missile down is above 25 percent — but somewhere short of the president’s 97 percent figure. Those who argue against diplomacy, and especially those who argue for military preventive attack, are clearly overly optimistic regarding our defensive capabilities. They apparently expect that if anything goes wrong and North Korea fires missile at us, our defenses will save us — facts and statistics be damned.

Oh, it’s also worth mentioning that these are only for scenarios directed against the U.S. homeland. We can’t protect wide areas of open ocean, making statements that we should shoot down any North Korean attempt to launch an ICBM for an atmospheric nuclear test even less likely to succeed.

But here’s the real rub. We will have 44 GBIs in Alaska and California once the final current orders are installed. So let’s assume for the sake of argument that we get those 44 interceptors and that they all work as designed. If we fire four at each incoming North Korean ICBM, then all Pyongyang has to do to guarantee a successful attack is fire 12 missiles at us. Our missile defenses only go to 11. If we want to make them go to 22, then you can only fire two GBIs at each incoming missile, reducing your chances from whatever they were by half.

Since the time of the bow and arrow, military planners have known that with enough time and energy offense can always overpower defense. And our GBIs are a lot more expensive that North Korea’s missiles. Our interceptors cost roughly $70-100 million, each. The entire GDP of North Korea is only $12 billion. It’s reasonable to guess that their costs per offensive system is a lot lower than our cost per interceptor. So, unless we plan to buy a lot more GBIs, which don’t work all that well, we need to accept that U.S.-based missile defense is not going to protect us if North Korea decides to commit suicide and launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM at the United States.

Now, where was that handbook on North Korean diplomacy again?

Jon Wolfsthal is a globally recognized expert on nuclear weapons and nonproliferation policy. A nonresident fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he was President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He is the former deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He has served on site in North Korea, helped negotiate an arms control agreement with Russia, and served as Vice President Joe Biden’s nuclear security advisor from 2009 to 2012.

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