Column: Boost missile defense against North Korea
There is wide and bipartisan agreement that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a grave threat to the United States and our allies. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called it an “imminent” threat. His predecessor, John Kerry, said North Korea’s nuclear program would be one of the top challenges for the new administration.
But naming the problem is easy — especially when unpredictable leaders like Kim Jong Un can’t stop bragging about his regime’s progress while threatening attacks on the west.
All paths forward have their challenges. Pre-emptive military action could lead to wider conflict while offering no real guarantee of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Negotiation without verifiable assurances does not remove the threat, and is further complicated by the complex overlay of Sino-American relations. Which means immediately boosting funding for the centerpiece of our homeland missile defense, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), is the best course.
To borrow (and flip) a phrase, sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Most military strategists and political leaders agree that strengthening our ability to defeat a North Korean missile attack makes sense — both to deter Pyongyang’s leaders and neutralize the threat from this rogue regime’s weapons of mass destruction.
As our only system capable of defending the entire United States — including Alaska and Hawaii — from such attack, GMD provides us with an advantage. This multilayered, global system is made up of space-based satellites that detect enemy launches, sea and land-based radars that track enemy missiles into the edge of space, command and control systems in Colorado Springs, and ultimately interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Fort Greeley in Alaska that launch from their silos and destroy the incoming missile before it reaches our shores.
As one of the most complex programs ever developed, this Boeing-built system has assets spread across 15 time zones connected by over 20,000 miles of fiber optic cable. If hitting a bullet with a bullet sounds hard, hitting a nuclear warhead traveling through space at around 4 miles per second sounds nearly impossible. But GMD has proven capable of doing just that, successfully shooting down live target missiles in 10 separate tests.
The latest success showed once again how far the system has progressed. It was a milestone for the program as it was the 10th successful intercept, the most complex and real-world test, and more importantly, the first time the system has been tested against an ICBM.
Previous tests had used smaller missiles to replicate the threat. And while those tests provided invaluable data to help perfect the system, the most recent test proved GMD is on the right path, as the kill vehicle “completely obliterated” the simulated nuclear warhead, in the words of Vice Admiral James Syring, Missile Defense Agency director. The test showed the world it can defend the United States against missiles more technically advanced than anything in North Korea’s arsenal.
In recent years, there has been broad bipartisan support for GMD. Democrats and Republicans have come together to sustain the program’s basic funding, even through lean budgetary times, allowing the Department of Defense to continually improve and upgrade GMD.
That support has allowed the Missile Defense Agency to start deploying additional interceptors at the current GMD bases — an expansion prompted by an earlier round of North Korean missile and nuclear weaponry tests. MDA has identified potential GMD interceptor sites in the eastern or Midwest U.S. which would offer warfighters an expanded, more robust and resilient capability to defend against threats. And they are working on modernizing the “kill vehicle” — which targets an incoming ICBM — to stay ahead of the progressing threat.
Now, a new generation of upgrades is needed to maintain our advantage as North Korea redoubles its own testing and development. Solutions that expand the reach and capability of our system to outpace this growing threat are required. Increased “left of launch” options, improved sensors, more focus on the red-hot boost phase when enemy missiles are easiest to see and at their lowest speeds, and a greater overall number of interceptors for the so called “midcourse phase” are all necessary. Finally, we must conduct frequent and rigorous testing of the system, including both intercept and non-intercept tests, which are critical in a system where failure truly is not an option.
To keep our defense far ahead of Kim Jong Un’s offense we must build on what works, invest in testing and innovations that will make the GMD system more effective for both current and future threats, all the while providing the best capability and value to the American taxpayer.
Adm. William Gortney (ret.) is a retired U.S. Navy Admiral and the former commander of the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).