Can U.S. Missile Defenses Keep Up With the North Korean Threat?

Pyongyang is building more powerful nuclear weapons and more advanced ballistic missiles, forcing Washington and its allies to rethink how to counter the North’s advancing arsenal

A man watches a television screen reporting news of North Korea's latest submarine-launched ballistic missile test at a railway station in Seoul on August 25, 2016.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un declared a recent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test the "greatest success", Pyongyang's state media said on August 25. / AFP / JUNG YEON-JE        (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man watches a television screen reporting news of North Korea's latest submarine-launched ballistic missile test at a railway station in Seoul on August 25, 2016. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un declared a recent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test the "greatest success", Pyongyang's state media said on August 25. / AFP / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea’s latest underground nuclear test on Friday — which produced its largest ever explosive yield — reinforced fears in Washington and across Asia that Pyongyang’s military advances could soon outpace the missile defense systems the United States and its regional allies have laboriously built up over the last decade.

Experts and former officials say the United States and its Asian allies could be in danger of falling behind as North Korea builds longer-range and increasingly reliable missiles that expand its potential reach and threaten to overwhelm expensive missile-defense systems.

North Korea’s latest underground nuclear detonation in Punggye-ri, which registered as a 5 magnitude tremor, follows a dramatic spike in ballistic missile tests conducted by the North since February. The missile launches have raised alarms about the true strength of anti-missile shields in South Korea, Japan and the United States, and caused officials to revisit their thinking about the real dangers presented by the North Korean regime.

While the issue has barely registered in the U.S. presidential campaign, the next commander-in-chief will have to find a so far elusive recipe for confronting Pyongyang’s relentless pursuit of medium- and long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The regime of Kim Jung Un has been on a missile-testing frenzy this year, launching more than 30 ballistic missiles in 2016, which is “more than the number fired previously by North Korea, ever,” Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp. think tank, told Foreign Policy.

The more elaborate tests could allow North Korea to transform its missile arsenal from a “showcase” threat “to an operational force that seriously jeopardizes all of its neighbors, including China,” said Bennett, also a former senior Pentagon official.

One of those tests was the successful June launch of the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of roughly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), potentially threatening the U.S. territory of Guam as well as cities inside China. The missile could potentially carry a nuclear warhead. The North also conducted a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile test last month that flew about 500 km before falling into the Sea of Japan; experts figure that missile, too, has a full range of about 1,000 km.

The combination of improved missile technology and what appears to be the development of more powerful nuclear weapons is raising alarm on Capitol Hill. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Friday called the detonation “a stark reminder” of the threat posed by the North. He called on President Obama to “redouble [his] efforts to strengthen security guarantees and defense relationships with unshakable allies like South Korea and Japan.”

Even China, which has often served as the North’s nominal ally and patron, has built up significant missile defense weaponry of its own against Pyongyang’s missile threat. The Chinese have invested in Russian-made S-300 missiles, and a Chinese variant, the HQ-9, as well as a missile defense shield that resembles America’s THAAD system, according to Bennett.

What remains to be seen is whether North Korea’s successful tests will translate into new and sustainable capabilities. Since the 1990s, the North has suffered a litany of technical failures and embarrassments in its missile tests, often prompting jokes and ridicule. But now, the regime is making steady progress. Experts, citing accounts from defectors, say there is reason to believe that North Korea has improved the accuracy of its missiles thanks to a Russian-made global positioning system.

In the longer term, U.S. officials worry that the North could eventually hit the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile. “At the current pace that North Korea is on, by the early 2020s they could have an operational ICBM capable of hitting the U.S.,” according to Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

Mindful of the expanding reach of the North’s missiles, South Korea recently announced plans to invest in more sophisticated anti-missile defenses — the U.S.-manufactured Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD. With hi-tech radar, THAAD is designed to knock out short and intermediate-range enemy missiles as they zoom downward in their “terminal” phase.

Acquisition costs, however, are steep: One THAAD system costs about $1.6 billion for six truck-mounted launchers and 49 missiles.

Japan, which relies on radar and anti-missile systems based on Aegis-equipped ships, is also considering purchasing the THAAD system. But even with the system, South Korea and Japan risk being overwhelmed, as they would lack a sufficient number of interceptors to take out North Korea’s numerous missiles, experts said. As a result, Seoul and Washington are working on other options that  would seek to preemptively destroy North Korean missile batteries, possibly with stealthy aircraft like B-2 bombers.

The math of missile defense is unfavorable. U.S. defense officials have said that their missile-defense programs are time consuming and hugely expensive to produce, while an adversary like Iran or North Korea can build large numbers of cheap projectiles to overwhelm tens of billions of dollars worth of defensive measures.

“The cost curve is working against us,” Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency said earlier this year.

That makes North Korea’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles even more worrisome, because there are concerns that the United States might not be ready. The nation’s primary missile defense system is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, which has never been tested against an ICBM. Despite that deficiency, Washington has placed 30 interceptors split between California and Alaska. Deployed in a hurry by the Bush administration in 2004 before all the testing on the missiles could be completed, it has only scored about a 50 percent success rate — 9 out of 17 — in more than a decade’s worth of tests. The next test is slated for later this year.

In testing so far, however, the system hasn’t tackled a long-range ballistic missile of the kind that would actually be launched by North Korea or Iran. So other than computer modeling, the fielded missiles are unproven against the threat they’ve been developed to defeat. And the tests don’t take into account the possibility of a large salvo of missiles.

Despite that, Congress is pushing  the Pentagon to spend as much as $4 billion on a third GMD site east of the Mississippi, with sites under consideration in Michigan, New York, and Ohio. The Defense Department has argued against the idea, saying that it would rather spend the money on upgrading the sites it already has, and testing its missiles.

Reflecting the anxiety generated by the North, some military analysts have even floated the idea of deploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in the South as a deterrent against the unpredictable North Korean regime.

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