U.S. Spends Billions on Missile Defense, Still Can’t Reliably Stop a North Korean Attack

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A ground-based interceptor rocket is launched on May 30, 2017, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Photo: Al Seib/LA Times via Getty Images

Over the weekend, North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, demonstrating for the first time that it can make a weapon capable of hitting Alaska. On Wednesday Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis confirmed that the missile, Hwasong-14, was “not one we’ve seen before.”

Davis also suggested that if North Korea launched an attack, the U.S. missile defense system could stop it. “We do have confidence in our ability to defend against the limited threat, the nascent threat that is there,” he said.

He pointed to a successful test in May in which the U.S. military launched an interceptor missile from California and a target missile from the Marshall Islands. The California missile “destroyed the target in a direct collision” over the Pacific Ocean.

But Davis cautioned that North Korea is quickly working toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States. “This is an aggressive research-and-development program on their part, and it is one that we have sought from the beginning with our ballistic missile defense system to be able to outpace it,” he said.

Others think Davis’s acknowledgement that the U.S. has “mixed results” when it comes to missile defense is far too generous. Since the 1980s, the U.S. has spent more than $200 billion on developing various missile defense systems, yet it still has no reliable method of defending the itself from an ICBM.

What the U.S. does have is a variety of missile defense weapons scattered around the Pacific, each with a different success rate. There are ground-based missile intercepters at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Fort Greely in Alaska, Navy ships equipped with the Aegis missile-intercept system, and several Patriot missile-defense batteries. The idea is that if a missile is launched toward the U.S., missile interceptors will target the ICBM using radar and other tracking data and collide with it in midair.

Hitting one speeding projectile with another is no easy task, as tests of the missile interceptors have shown. The Washington Post reports that prior to May’s successful test, the Pentagon’s leading weapons tester, the Directorate of Operational Test and Evaluation, found that the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system only took out the intended target in ten out of 17 tests – and the conditions in some of the successful tests weren’t very realistic.

“Partly we are failing because it is the hardest thing the Pentagon has tried to do,” Phil Coyle, a former Pentagon weapons tester, told Politico. “We’ve had more success with short-range and medium-range systems. But they are going more slowly, they are traveling in the atmosphere. That is different than traveling at 15,000 miles per hour in space. Especially when the enemy is trying to fool you.”

As the video below explains, there are various countermeasures a nation like North Korea could use to try to get around U.S. missile-defense systems, such as including decoys in the warhead.

In light of these shortcomings, U.S. officials are considering other approaches to missile defense. According to the AP, this includes “boost- phase” defense, in which the enemy missile is destroyed shortly after it’s launched, or developing a drone that could disable an ICBM with a solid-state laser.

But developing those ideas would require two things in short supply these days: money and time. Trump’s drastic 2018 budget proposal called for a $340 million cut from missile-defense programs. Last week the House Armed Services Committee voted to provide $12.5 billion for missile defense, $2.5 billion more than Trump requested, in the 2018 budget.

Even if more money is provided for missile defense, the systems can’t be improved fast enough to neutralize the threat from North Korea. Experts note that while developing an ICBM is a big step forward for Pyongyang, it’s still several years away from being able to launch a nuclear weapon. But producing a reliable missile-defense system could take even longer.

“These will take years and years — they are talking 2030,” Coyle, the former Pentagon weapons tester, told Politico. “And meanwhile, North Korea keeps getting better and better. The problem is technology is just not providing us the solutions. There is no technical solution. There really isn’t a military solution to North Korea. We’ve just got to engage with North Korea.”

U.S. Missile Defense System Probably Can’t Stop North Korea