National Security & Defense

Yes, the U.S. Navy Can Shoot Down North Korean ICBMs

U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers under way in the Pacific Ocean in 2012. (Photo: US Navy)
Its Aegis ballistic-missile defense system is already capable and can be more so with certain upgrades.

North Korea continues to test its nuclear weapons and its means to deliver them, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can reach America. We clearly need the best ballistic-missile defense (BMD) systems possible.

Even with this urgent need, some think we still have time, because they think that North Korea still must develop greater accuracy and the means to reenter the atmosphere before it can threaten us.

In the Wall Street Journal, I recently observed that North Korea could detonate nuclear weapons above the atmosphere to produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and shut down the electric power grid indefinitely. Following such a burst over America, millions could die from starvation, disease, and societal collapse.

Guess what? North Korea recently highlighted its interest in a high-altitude “super powerful EMP attack” as a “strategic goal.” As in 2012 and 2016, it could launch a satellite to approach us from our mostly undefended south, this time with a nuke on board.

We need to enhance our limited ground-based BMD system in Alaska and California. Aegis BMD ships deployed around the world can augment that homeland-defense capability. But a false narrative is being spread in numerous articles: that these ships cannot shoot down ICBMs, except possibly in their terminal phase as they approach their targets.

That myth is a legacy of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which made it illegal to defend the American people against ballistic missiles. The United States bet on the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD, which promised that we would destroy the Soviet Union if it attacked us.

It was my privilege to serve as President Ronald Reagan’s chief defense and space negotiator, defending his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) while learning all about the ABM Treaty as the “cornerstone of strategic stability,” as the Soviets and the U.S. liberal elite described it. Then as President George H. W. Bush’s SDI director, I advocated a “global protection against limited strikes” mission, including a new role for theater-missile-defense (TMD) systems to protect our overseas troops, friends, and allies.

The ABM Treaty permitted TMD systems. So I advised Admiral Frank Kelso, the chief of Naval operations, to ensure that Aegis BMD efforts were limited to building a TMD capability; otherwise, MAD acolytes, who were committed to the ABM Treaty, would kill it in the cradle.

A false narrative is being spread in numerous articles: that America’s ballistic-missile-defense ships cannot shoot down ICBMs, except possibly in the terminal phase of the missiles as they approach their targets.

Fortunately, that strategy to secure the political viability of Aegis BMD worked — but perhaps too well. Many mistakenly think that Aegis BMD can do no more than provide TMD capability. Even after President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, little was done to make Aegis BMD all that we thought it could be in the early 1990s.

Nonetheless, in early 2008, when a threatening satellite was shortly to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, President Bush chose Aegis BMD to shoot it down before its toxic fuel could threaten folks on the ground. In a heroic concerted effort, dubbed the “Burnt Frost” mission, the Navy succeeded in destroying the satellite, an uncooperative target traveling faster than an ICBM.

The challenge was difficult because the operational Aegis-system sensors at that time needed augmentation by other target-tracking information to cue the missile interceptor — Standard Missile-3 Block IA (SM-3 IA) — into the battlespace and close enough to its high-velocity target to enable the Navy’s “hit-to-kill vehicle interceptor.” Many agencies worked together to meet this urgent ad hoc challenge, as discussed in this video.

This challenge would be much less difficult today, because the Navy’s “launch on remote” and “engage on remote” capabilities can enable such intercepts and would be instrumental in defending against North Korean ICBMs. “Launch on remote” refers to the use of sensors to enable the captain of a given Aegis BMD ship to launch its interceptors before the radar on the same ship picks up the attacking target. “Engage on remote” refers to the fact that today’s interceptors need not be guided to their targets by the ship that launches them.

If Burnt Frost were undertaken today, it would employ a network of sensors operated by competent (usually military) personnel. Claims that Aegis BMD interceptors must be launched from near the launch site of the threatening missile are false. There is no reason for a “tail chase,” as some authors have claimed. It would be obvious to “quail hunters” that Aegis BMD ships can have “side shot” opportunities from many locations, against rockets “on the rise” above the atmosphere and later in their “descent phase.”   

Almost a decade after President Bush gave the Burnt Frost mission to a competent team employing an Aegis BMD ship, President Trump should now direct his BMD team to ensure that Aegis BMD ships operate in locations from which they can shoot down North Korea’s ICBMs both going up and coming down.

Faster-velocity interceptors would improve this Aegis BMD capability. Lighter-weight kill vehicles with a final-stage thrust capability can provide increased velocity without requiring a major redesign of Aegis infrastructure. Employing such lightweight technology from the SDI era would be less expensive than building a larger-diameter interceptor as some recommend.

Aegis BMD has a significant ability to defend the U.S. homeland against long-range ballistic missiles from North Korea (and also Iran). We should make that important defense asset all it can be.


    Will the War of Words with North Korea Escalate?

    What do Trump’s Threats toward North Korea Actually Mean?

    Could Vladimir Putin be Behind the North Korean Nuclear Threat?

Ambassador Henry F. Cooper was director of the Strategic Defense Initiative and chief negotiator at the Defense and Space Talks with the U.S.S.R.


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