National Security & Defense

The Case for Preemptive Defense and Offense in the North Korean Chess Match

Photo via Reuters/KCNA
Even if only to protect the American mainland from Pyongyang’s aggressions, it is critical that we have the ability to shoot an ICBM from the sky.

Last week, North Korea launched a ballistic missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, sending residents scrambling for shelter. The missile was the second Kim Jong-Un’s regime has fired over its eastern neighbor in a month, and these tests come dangerously close to acts of war, especially considering North Korea’s statement that the Kim regime plans to “sink” Japan should sanctions continue.

So why didn’t Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe order his military to shoot down the missile? And why didn’t President Donald Trump or Secretary of Defense James Mattis do the same? While the missile crossed Japanese airspace, intercepting it wouldn’t have been an act of war. Plus, the Sea of Japan, the Pacific Ocean, and Hokkaido itself are dotted with missile-defense systems.

In fact, these systems were powerless against the KN-17 launched by North Korea last Friday. The ICBM was flying too fast and too high for the Japanese Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors stationed at Hokkaido’s Chitose Air Base to have an effective shot at it. While those interceptors are designed to shoot down missiles in the final phase of flight, ships equipped with the Aegis system and armed with SM-3 interceptors throughout the Sea of Japan and Pacific Ocean could’ve intercepted the North Korean missile, but only if they had been in the right position when it passed over Hokkaido. Last Friday, they weren’t, and given that the missile barely grazed the outer limit of their range, it likely wouldn’t have mattered if they had been.

But poorly-placed and unreliable interceptors in the Pacific aren’t the only holes in America’s missile-defense system. Should North Korea launch a missile over Guam, Hawaii, or parts of Alaska, for example, the U.S. military cannot order residents to seek shelter while praying it’s just a test. Preemptive preparations today are essential to protecting the U.S. from the rapid development of the Kim regime’s missile program and ending its aggressive behavior. Especially considering North Korea’s close militaristic relationship with Iran — a power itself only held at bay by a weak deal whose status is still up in the air — defensive and offensive action is our best bet to prevent an attack in the future.

Many, including Mattis, believe the United States’s next step should be shooting down North Korean test missiles. While such preemptive strikes will escalate tensions with the Kim regime, if successful they will also demonstrate the futility of an attack on the U.S. Before Mattis and the Trump administration can perform them with any certainty, however, the nation’s missile-defense system must reach a level of reliability that can guarantee success. Such preemptive maneuvers, therefore, work in concert: A reliable missile-defense system not only allows the U.S. to shoot down a North Korean test missile but also protects it in the event the Kim regime decides to launch an attack on U.S. territories.

Since last week’s test, Japan has already begun closing some of the gaps in its defensive network on Hokkaido. The Japanese military has deployed two more PAC-3 units to undisclosed locations on the island, intended to protect against a North Korean attack. The U.S., too, has expanded its defense network in response to the North Korean threat, by deploying additional THAAD systems to bases in southeast South Korea.

Currently, the U.S. has 16 warships equipped with Aegis — a defense system capable of launching interceptors like the SM-3 in the final stage of flight and, to a much lesser degree, the late mid-course stage — stationed in the Pacific. That fleet is not nearly large enough to protect the entire area a North Korean missile could cover with any degree of certainty. Plus, two of the ships homeported in Japan, the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S McCain, were damaged in collisions earlier this year, reducing the functional fleet size to 14. For Aegis to work, the ship must be in the right place at the right time, an additional challenge given our lack of intelligence prior to North Korean launches. By Fiscal Year 2020, the U.S. does plan to increase its Aegis fleet size from 33 to 51, but where the ships will dock is as of yet undisclosed.

SM-3-equipped Aegis, THAAD, and PAC-3 systems deployed by the U.S. and Japan, however, are most effective against a missile’s final phase, so while they might function well for protecting Japan and South Korea or intercepting a test missile, they don’t really protect America against a North Korean ICBM. The best defense against a direct attack is our Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, whose Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) is capable of intercepting an ICBM from sites in Fort Greely, Alaska and Fort Vandenberg, California. By the end of 2017, the DOD plans to install 14 additional missiles in Alaska, and in a May test, a GBI from the California base successfully destroyed an ICBM fired nearly 4,200 miles away in the Marshall Islands.

Increased deployment is a good start, but it doesn’t fix the massive unreliability of the U.S.’s missile-defense programs.

Increased deployment is a good start, but it doesn’t fix the massive unreliability of the U.S.’s missile-defense programs. The GMD is a good example: While the May test inspired public confidence in the system, its overall record tells a different story. Only ten of 18 tests have been successful since the program began. Since January of 2010, the system has worked only twice out of five tests, and the 2017 test was the first in three years. Our missile-defense systems are “not postured to shoot down North Korean missile tests,” Kingston Reif, the director of disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, told Fox News. He’s absolutely right — under the Obama administration, significant cuts in defense funding fueled by a miscalculation of the North Korea threat and a controversial Cold War-era strategy set the U.S.’s missile-defense program back several years. Today, it remains woefully inchoate.

One such cut was to the boost-phase interception program, which, in theory, could solve many of the reliability problems with the U.S.’s missile-defense system. While in boost, the first phase of launch, the missile emits a bright heat signature and a payload of highly-combustible fuel, making it easier to track and destroy. Missing a boost-phase interception isn’t game over; systems farther down the line, like the GMD and Aegis, have another shot at the ICBM before it reaches its target. As Joe Cirincione, a former staffer for the House Committee on Armed Services and a nuclear-policy expert, wrote in Defense One, the main problem with intercepting the KN-17 launched by North Korea on Friday was its altitude: It flew higher than any theater (mid-range) ballistic missile-defense system in existence, let alone any it flew over, could reach with confidence. But in boost phase, height isn’t a problem. The major roadblock in boost intercept is timing and location: A boost-phase intercept must be conducted within the first three minutes of launch, and the defensive unit must be incredibly close to the launch site.

Two cancelled boost programs would be especially valuable in addressing North Korean missile tests. First is the Space-Based Intercept (SBI) program, which, because it is a passive defense mechanism, cuts down on the need to reallocate resources and relieves pressure on the positioning problems of other defense systems. The second program, Airborne Laser (ABL), which is essentially a high-powered laser attached to a plane, was testing well before the Obama administration scrapped it, and reviving it would be expensive but easier than reviving SBI. If manufacturers can increase its range, ABL is the best boost-phase option for dealing with the North Korean threat.

Only once these gaps are filled can a preemptive offensive intercept of a test missile be a strategic option, given both the geopolitical issues that accompany such a strike and the need for the intercept to be successful. While Mattis has not specified the details of such an action, only establishing that North Korea’s “provocations . . . press against the envelope,” experts agree that it would constitute an act of war if it occurred over North Korean territory or international waters. So the U.S. will first have to secure support from Japan or other allies, like South Korea, for an intercept.

Of course, this means that boost-phase and, to a degree, GMD systems wouldn’t be helpful in preemptive offense, leaving SM-3, PAC-3, and THAAD responsible for the interception. As Friday indicated, they aren’t ready for such a responsibility. And reliability is crucial if such a strike is to be successful. Speaking to National Review, former Illinois senator Mark Kirk agreed that intercepting a North Korean test is a “wise” step in deterring the North Korean threat, but recognized that it’s “very important that [the interception] works.” Failure would show the Kim regime weakness and vulnerability, counteracting the strike’s intended message of strength and impermeability and undermining President Trump’s promises of militaristic “fire and fury.”

It is critical that we have the ability to knock ICBMs out of the sky in the face of North Korean provocations. Even if that ability doesn’t deter the Kim regime from its relentless missile testing, at least Americans won’t have to live in the state of suspended fear experienced on Hokkaido. But until we fix the holes in our missile-defense network, such a luxury will remain a pipe dream. In the U.S.’s high-stakes chess match against North Korea, a good defense comes before a good offense.

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